Posted 10 months ago on July 18, 2014, 8:46 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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Common Minerals: Lifeblood of the Economic System, Disappearing Along With Fossil Fuels
Friday, 18 July 2014 09:29
By Shay Totten, Truthout | Interview / Cheslea Green Publishing
Minerals and fossil fuels that are rapidly being exhausted are described by professor and author Ugo Bardi as "Gaia's Gift": "It is a gift that was made only once in human history and that will not be made again in the future. From now on, we are on our own, and we must learn how to live with less."
From our current depletable and polluting energy sources to the rare minerals that are vital to modern technology, the earth's nonrenewable resources are not far from disappearing. Once they are gone, they won't be returning.
The age of fossil fuels and abundant mineral mining is nearing an end. Make a contribution to Truthout and obtain Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet by clicking here.
The following is an interview with Ugo Bardi, professor at the University of Florence and the author of Extracted.
Shay Totten: Which of the rare earth minerals that fuel our industrial system are most likely to be depleted first (at current mining levels)? Are there any resources that we’ve already depleted beyond acceptable levels?
Ugo Bardi: We need to understand that "depletion" is a relative term. Nothing ever disappears from the Earth's crust: everything we extract still exists, but once extracted it is widely dispersed - in products, in waste streams, and even in our land, air, and water. The problem that we are facing is that most minerals become gradually more expensive to extract because high-grade ores are progressively depleted. The final result is that we are entering an age of diminishing returns in the production of mineral commodities. So, within some limits, running out or not running out of something is a problem that has to do with what we choose to extract. When we deal with "critical" minerals, such as rare earths for magnets, platinum group metals for catalysts in chemistry, gallium for LED and other applications in electronics, and others; they are so important that we'll probably choose to pay almost any price for continuing to produce them - as long as it will be possible (and even that won't be forever).
So, a more pressing problem is with relatively common minerals, which are the lifeblood of the economic system: for instance metals such as copper, chromium, nickel, zinc, and more. They must be cheap to extract to be affordable, but they are not cheap any more and will never be cheap again. The problem is especially critical for the minerals that are the true "Achilles' heel" of the industrial society: oil and gas. They are relatively common minerals in the Earth's crust, but their extraction is becoming more and more expensive and that's setting up a vicious circle of diminishing returns. That is placing a heavy stress on the world's economic system, and it is likely that, in the future, we won't be able to produce fossil fuels at the same rates as we are today. This is the essence of the concept of "peak oil."
Speaking of "Peak Oil," will we experience such a thing as "peak metals" or "peak minerals"?
Yes, absolutely, there is such a thing as "peak metals" and, in general, "peak minerals." As with peak oil, the production peak of any mineral commodity is generated by the increasing costs of exploiting resources that are becoming less and less concentrated and more expensive to extract. Right now, the main factor in these costs is energy; The more dispersed the metal, the more energy it takes to extract it. So, the prices of most mineral commodities follow the trend of increasing oil and gas prices. So far, we can still afford to keep production stable for most (but not all) minerals. But all the fossil fuels are peaking. That's driving energy costs higher and, as a consequence, we are facing a general problem of diminishing returns for the extractive industry.
If the trend continues (and it may be exacerbated because of political factors), we won't be able afford stable metals production any longer. At that point, we'll see the production of some of all mineral commodities peaking and declining. We could call this phenomenon "peak minerals." Specific metals may peak at different times depending on financial and geological factors. Some commodities may be especially vulnerable to peaking, in particular some of the metals that carry heavy weight in our economy, for instance copper - vital for transporting electrical current - or the platinum-group metals so crucial to catalytic converters are already expensive to extract. Also, the accessible reserves of nickel and zinc, key ingredients in stainless steel and a host of other products - all of these metals could be tapped out in just a few decades, within a generation. In some cases peaking would have truly disastrous consequences for humankind, such as for phosphates, a vital nutrient for agriculture.
Is it possible for a rare mineral shortage to exist and for one or two countries to hold more stock of these minerals and metals? If so, which countries are they?
The world's mineral resources are unevenly distributed, and some countries have a higher share of specific resources. For instance, 97 percent of the active rare earth mines are in China. Platinum group metals are mostly produced in Russia, cobalt in Congo, chromium in South Africa, copper in Chile, and so on. No country holds the monopoly of any resource, but in many cases if a government were to decide to use mineral resources as a political or strategic weapon, the result would be a considerable disruption of the world's economic system. But such a strategy would first and foremost damage the producing country and this is the probable reason why resource wars have been threatened many times but rarely put into practice.
China has already used rare earths strategically in its dispute with Japan over fishing rights. It halted all rare earths shipments in 2010 after the Japanese Coast Guard arrested a Chinese fishing boat captain. This event revealed two things: The Chinese know exactly where to hit foreign industries, and a country that owns strategic resources can decide to use them as strategic weapons. Only a few weeks with no supply of rare earths would bring Western production to a standstill. Many nations lack even a modest emergency stock of strategic materials as rare earths, though the risky dependence on a single supplier has spurred various governments and industries to research solutions to the problem. The present Ukrainian crisis, indeed, is another interesting test of whether one of the sides involved is willing to play the "resource card." The risk of the card being played for one or another resource only becomes stronger with the progress of depletion.