In my ITW by Souveraine Tech 24/06/2022
1/ What do you think is the link between commodities and technological sovereignty?
All technological sovereignty is linked to the control of one or more commodities. Tools and technology, from cartwheels to microprocessors, are based on natural resources that are more or less transformed, but whose production it is always desirable to control.
Our recent era has decided to ignore this link, leading us to fantasies such as that of the “factory-less company” and to tragic political decisions, such as the European abandonment of our sovereignty in the control of energy resources – in the German style – but also mineral and agricultural resources, the deleterious effects of which we have seen since the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
One of the geopolitical inputs to this rout was the collapse of the USSR. I warned the authorities for the first time in 1990 that the abandonment of our sovereignty in commodities was harmful, because the combination of deindustrialisation and dependence would result in wealth and unemployment. But everywhere the answer was: “peace dividend”,
Afterwards, I continued to warn, having practised business intelligence on natural resources in China and having noted at the end of the last century that the Chinese mineral doctrine would provoke a crisis of geopolitical dependence on commodities. I noted that in Beijing, it is easier to achieve the national industrial objective when one has been trained to understand its technological path. Of the last six Chinese Presidents and Prime Ministers, with the exception of the current Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, a law-man, all were trained as engineers: mechanical engineering from 1993-2003 with President Jiang Zemin, and electrical with Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, hydro-electric from 2003-2012 with Hu Jintao while his Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was a geologist, and from 2012 to the present day, Xi Jinping, a process chemist, is familiar with agriculture. This academic chronology corresponds to the country’s successful industrial stages: power plants, hydroelectricity, mining and energy geopolitics, process chemistry, agribusiness… So many strategic solidarities secured by China thanks to a powerful idea: security is a public good that the market can neither guarantee nor provide.
Nowadays, echoing Western leaders, commentators complain that China has superiorities in electric mobility, hydrogen… But this advantage of the Chinese state is the legacy of the education of its elite, i.e. an industrial knowledge that encourages a culture of performance and innovation, tight production chain costs and a mastery of strategic logistics chains. We are far from political science or economic science, while on our side, the engineer’s word has long since been lost, but to the industrial inculture of the communication of communicators. How many leaders have we known who knew in which industrial direction to lead France or Europe? How many were really interested in the functioning of a mine, a power station or a wheat field?
So I warned in those Old Testament times, compared to our century of social networks, that the ecological transition was shifting us from dependence on hydrocarbons to dependence on metals. Then, during conferences, as the dependence on strategic metals became clearer, I warned again, for example before the Institut de France or in the media, as recently in 2017.
As a result, over the years, I could only observe not only the confirmation of our abandonments, but also that they would generate this convergence of movement between colossal fortunes, which were built on the rubble of French deindustrialisation, and in parallel, a deepening unemployment, as our ‘deindustrialised’ dependencies widened.
In the critical metals industry, the characteristic example was the “deindustrialisation” and then the disappearance of the French and European leader, Comptoir-Lyon-Alemand-Louyot. This two hundred year old company, whose last known owner was the Fimalac group, saw its huge stock of strategic metals, its cash flow and its property reserve in the Marais district of Paris swallowed up in a fortune and its factories and their jobs simultaneously disappear. Since then, its metallurgical know-how in critical metals has been sorely lacking for the technological sovereignty and energy transition of today’s France.
Moreover, in this technological dependency the trickle-down theory works in reverse. If a large company is ‘deindustrialised’, its smaller partners and subcontractors follow. When these sectors and trades disappear, it is not possible to recreate them without investments greater than the fortunes made when they disappeared.
In the metallurgy sector in the broad sense, the list of those who have disappeared is already long: Pechiney, Comptoir-Lyon-Alemand-Louyot, Metaleurop, Pennaroya, BRGM mining assets, Rhodia, Alstom, etc. This movement was indeed directed towards deindustrialisation and dependence with a logic of profit and fortune, otherwise why do it? Why did the administration, the employers’ unions and the sectoral organisations remain silent, and what did the politicians of the time say? Strangely enough, while in Germany, England or Italy the syndrome never had the same magnitude, the whole French logic of the link between deindustrialisation and wealth is not documented. Another century would have said that there is “something rotten in the kingdom of Denmark”.
Our last forty years of deindustrialisation are therefore, in my opinion, directly linked to this maximisation of our surrender of sovereignty in natural resources. The opposite path is therefore naturally the only one that can lead us back to technological sovereignty and the associated jobs.
2/ Why do you say that rare metals do not exist?
Since my first steps in the strategic metallurgical industry, I have classified metals into three categories.
An abundant metal was sought and discovered by a dynamic industrial fabric and inventive diplomacy. Then a range of technologies proved expedient to extract it from the ground, refine it, and through eco-design, to consume it in decreasing unit quantities and increasing uses. Finally, it is recycled. If any of the previous steps fail slightly or temporarily, it can become a sensitive metal.
It will become a critical metal if there is a high risk of a deficit without a scientific breakthrough leading to alternative solutions. It will also become critical if there is no longer any natural resource diplomacy to promote access and increase mineral production; the same goes for energy and agriculture. But again, if the unit quantities of metal to be recycled become so small that recycling will fail because it will not have a good yield and will therefore be very expensive.
However, this metal will be critical in one industry, but not in another, in one country, but not in another, and this changes over time. Platinum was critical in diesel car catalysis, but that consumption is declining; it will be critical again in the proton exchange membranes needed to run fuel cells in the hydrogen economy, but not in the 100% electric car. Nickel is described as critical for electric mobility. But its annual world production is equivalent to the production of about 60 million to 100 million batteries for electric vehicles, these quantities are recyclable and other battery chemistries, without nickel, notably LFP, or without lithium, have no penalising geological limits, not to mention technical progress, which will further reduce the cost of batteries. There is therefore little doubt that the production of electric vehicles will meet the demand of the ecological transition at affordable prices.
Prudent producers and consumers with a long memory will regularly question the supply and demand balances of these metals, otherwise there is a danger of freezing the abundant or critical nature of the metal, with no time dynamics. Furthermore, if a metal is a by-product of another metal, observation of the latter’s equilibria is essential. South African chromium used in steel is a by-product of platinum, so the dynamism of its production will be subject to the demand for platinum in catalytic converters, jewellery or hydrogen mobility rather than its own consumption in the steel industry. In agriculture, the war in Ukraine reminds us of the fragile boundary between abundant and critical agricultural commodities.
A strategic matter is political. It is not based on geological or market criteria. It is a resource that is essential to the state’s regalian missions, to national defence or to the fundamental political ambitions of a consumer or producer country. Iron ore is abundant, but it will have been very strategic for one consumer, China, and its steel production for its urbanisation policy. In early 2022, coal was strategic for a producer, Indonesia, as it temporarily banned its export to meet its own consumption. Since the war in Ukraine, all metals have become strategic again, as they are consumed in the arms industry. The war in Ukraine has also led to a global inflation in the prices of mineral, energy and agricultural resources; protecting the economy from this inflation has become strategic and nations are easing this price pressure by keeping their national production within their borders, such as wheat, iron ore or steel for India. This resource nationalism obviously has a deleterious effect on neighbouring economies, notably for European imports of Indian steel, while sanctions hit Russian steelmakers and bombs destroy Ukrainian steelworks. Conversely, it is strategic for the latter to continue to export their resources, which have become strategic for feeding the war effort.
Finally, if the last two critical and strategic notions merge, i.e. if geology and politics merge, this will lead to two phenomena. On the one hand, a destruction of demand, since the metal is ‘unobtainable’ and its price is high. On the other hand, competitive consumption is required, i.e. political and economic competition between different uses of the metal, which means that the producer will always choose the consumer closest to his own strategic objectives: this choice is usually made by the state, which first and foremost favours its national industry. Here again, the invasion of Ukraine is a telling example.
However, this situation can only be ephemeral: such an ‘unobtainable’ metal may not have been sufficiently researched in the earth’s crust, or it may be ecologically over-consumed, or even evolving from the stage of marginal metal production to that of mature metal production. Such situations will usually be those of tight metal markets, temporarily mismanaged and quickly falling back into line.
I had advised Noumea in 2012 that Indonesia was pursuing a formidable policy of natural resource nationalism on its nickel production by favouring domestic processing of finished products over ore exports. Subsequently, Jakarta has favoured the installation of Chinese steelmakers at the foot of its nickel mines and is now courting Tesla to set up its battery and electric vehicle factories there to diversify its partnerships. This is a long-standing competitive consumption of nickel, which favours local employment, but whose effects we are only now seeing.
However, as rising prices are causing a bottleneck in the supply chain and destroying demand, alternative technical developments will be researched and found. The competitive consumption of nickel is giving way to nickel-free batteries, which are already used in electric vehicles. The reasoning is the same for other materials, since the same electric vehicle batteries no longer contain cobalt and perhaps later no lithium.
Finally, when competitive consumption appears, neophyte minds, innocently inspired by the Great Oil and Gas Game, imagine “metal wars” that will take over the tensions created around what they call “rare metals”. This is a mistake, as a geographically concentrated conflict in the Gulf is unlikely to occur simultaneously for iron, platinum, copper, bauxite, lithium, nickel or zinc mines, which are scattered around the globe. Conversely, the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine has opened the door to the overthrow of Russia and the future conquest of its natural resources between Europe and China, with the central question: how and in what ways will they be shared?
In this hierarchy no mineral or metal is classified in what the media or politics have ignorantly referred to as “rare metals”, because this category does not exist.
Its appearance since 2017 is only the result of the environmental and conspiracy fake news promoted to counter the electric car. Funded in millions of dollars by a pro-oil lobby from Texas, it deliberately mixed the hoax “rare metals” with the notion of ‘rare earths’, or lanthanides. Relayed in France with impunity by mystifications such as “rare metal wars” or “green car, red battery”, the infox aimed to discredit the mine, its jobs and its professions, then the refining and metallurgy factories and finally the electric car, whose batteries it claimed had no circular economy, whereas manufacturers are fighting to recycle them Finally, let’s confirm once again an untruth: these batteries do not contain rare earths.
The ultimate target of this infox was to influence politicians, especially in France. Some of them blindly adopted the “rare metals” fake news without knowing what they were talking about, without questioning the communicators and columnists who were ready to compromise to access to the millions dollars financing the infox, or the media who propagated it and favoured sensationalism, harmful emotion, and caricature by broadcasting anti-electricity intoxication without examining, without studying the contradictory, without looking at the facts, and without questioning themselves.
Then, this incompetence and inculture generated the rest of the infox. It now warns that underground mining resources would be insufficient and would hinder the expansion of the electric car and that it is absolutely necessary to exploit underwater metal reserves, in particular nodules in the Pacific Ocean or, in certain deep-sea sulphides, crusts or other polymetallic sediments. In 2022, the folly of such projects is obvious, as the harmful impact of such exploitation on underwater biodiversity is unknown, ecocrime, uncontrolled, and therefore undesirable and undesirable for consumers who have already rejected the idea.
Finally, the last inconsiderate resurgence of the fake news is : hydrogen mobility is preferable to the electric car. In the energy sector, this gas could appear to be a peace factor, because everyone can produce it, except that the metals from the platinum mine in South Africa and Russia are indispensable to the sector and this has not been anticipated. More seriously, hydrogen is an unsuitable solution because of its electrical efficiency, which is probably why Elon Musk preferred electricity. Indeed, 70% of the electricity introduced into the hydrogen chain is lost – from the production of electricity to produce the gas to its destruction in a car’s fuel cell – whereas in the battery chain less than 10% of the electricity is lost, but in its transport through power lines. For this reason, solar or wind electricity, which is scarce, should not be wasted to produce hydrogen, but consumed as it is, and only very high carbon transport – maritime, rail or heavy duty vehicles – should be considered for this technology.
The infox of “rare metals” or a “rare metals war” was therefore a pro-oil hoax that tried to kill the electric car, a bookish scam of greenwashing that denied the technology and from which nothing great will be built. It will remain from its beginning to its end a questioning of the integrity of some columnists and media and will be an interesting case study of information manipulation taught in journalism and infowarfare schools. Its only result will have been to create our European delays in the electric car with its cohorts of industrial and social problems, while nothing confirms that future batteries will use today’s metals.
3/ Have we already explored all the possible uses and other virtues of our minerals?
No, every day brings new discoveries that transform a banal material into a strategic element. In 2015, Nickel-Manganese-Cobalt batteries with a high cobalt content were in fashion; in 2020, nickel was in vogue; in 2021, the deadly grip of the prices of these two metals and the thermal insecurity of these batteries are propelling Lithium-Iron-Phosphate (LFP) batteries, which do not contain cobalt or nickel, but are based on iron, the most abundant metal on earth. These are used in more than one in two batteries in China and recently in 50% of Tesla cars. Other metallurgies are also available: LMNO and LMO batteries, which are highly charged with the abundant metal manganese. And soon the new technical breakthroughs will present batteries with a sodium electrolyte instead of lithium or a solid ceramic electrolyte, but also cathodes with a sulphides nanostructure or silicon-doped anodes.
This R&D leading to substitutions was largely predictable for an industrial mind. The latter is always prepared for the dynamics of the reversal of geopolitical theories when one commodity takes the place of another, whereas the opposite is the static of a state of mind that copies the geopolitics of hydrocarbons to construct the infox of “rare metals”.
It seems to me, moreover, that these incultures and ignorances that allow such fake news to flourish will sink and give way to a rediscovery of what industry and progress are all about. This irruption will not be abnormal, given that the French political discourse of the last few decades mentioned in your first question has been “deindustrialising”. Let us ensure that it is not an oasis in the middle of the desert.
On 8 June last, the European parliamentarians voted to stop selling thermal cars in Europe from 2035, no doubt with all these elements in mind. The consequence must be a greater technological push towards electric solutions using abundant materials rather than locking the industry into sanctimonious hoaxes.
4/ Can you assess the quantity and potential of our country’s underground resources?
This is an excellent question to which I cannot give a precise answer. We know that in metropolitan France we know neither the geological horizon of base metals nor of critical metals below an average of 100 metres, with the exception of uranium, which was sought and exploited before the launch of the national nuclear power plant programme, and the subject of lithium, a deep metal, which is underway in Alsace. On the other hand, we note that there are countries in Europe that are mining critical metals in geological themes close to the Jura, the Massif-Central, the Pyrenees or Brittany.
Without repeating the mistakes of the past, let’s select a few metallurgical topics, initiate non-invasive explorations and confirm the quantities to be exploited.
5/ How would you describe a modern mine, somewhere in France, in an attempt to replace the image that popular opinion might still have of such a place?
In the 1950s, a generation of geologists, miners and energy specialists exploited what could be exploited in France before gaining territory abroad. This allowed the industrialisation of our country after the Second World War. The industrial cycle is: exploration, exploitation and transformation of natural resources, then industrial manufacturing, marketing, then service and finally recycling. Since then, the French mining industry has not escaped the great “de-industrialisation” movement that is weakening our country. It is even a disappointment for two reasons. Due to a lack of vision, it has remained prostrate, small and stagnant, while giants have been born elsewhere. Glencore, the world’s leading mining company, did not exist at the beginning of the century, and it far surpasses our century-old mining companies. Other world leaders, Rio Tinto or Newmont, have built empires by buying French BRGM discoveries (Yanacocha, Neves Corvo, Tembo Grande,…) which did not interest French miners, why? Since that time, French mining has had few new large-scale projects or the zenith of the disaster: the Uramin scandal, the sad fifteenth anniversary of which was celebrated on 15 June.
This is why the modern French mine must be put back at the centre of the general interest. In this day and age it is decarbonation and the metals extracted that must be selected to be truly useful in achieving this goal while the others must remain underground. In other words, we need less gold from Guyana, but more to responsibly exploit our metropolitan deposits of titanium, tungsten, tin, lithium, antimony, copper… all identified or listed in the undergrowth of France, which is so little explored.
The second reality is that, in people’s minds, the mine in France is Salsigne, and it scares them. Putting the mine back at the centre of the general interest and of the industry means starting by repairing it: let’s prove ourselves, let’s clean up all the Salsigne in France. We have the skills and in the framework of the circular economy these operations will be profitable.
Thirdly, let us free the administration from its shackles. For example, is it normal that the administrative authorisation of two identical drillings requires an administrative delay of two months for a geothermal exploration, but suffers from a delay of two years for a mineral exploration?
Fourthly, the mine is no longer Zola’s mine, the French mine prioritises the safety of its employees and the old methods that harmed nature have given way to modern environmental methods, compatible with our densely populated territory.
The French mine will be underground and not open-cast to limit its ecological impact, it operates naturally with electric or hydrogen-powered machines, it generates no dust, waste or noise outside, it has attracted nearby jobs in metallurgical industries that immediately convert metals into products, without the latter having to travel around the world to be transformed and consumed. Finally, it is a gigantic heat pump capable of generating its own energy and providing lighting and heating for the surrounding towns. In a word, it has succeeded in achieving a compromise between progress and environmental protection. Conversely, it is on the basis of this credibility that we must exclude the madness of undersea mines that are incompatible with these responsible exploitation standards.
France could thus quickly open a dozen small mines, often with co-products that are “strategic metals” and create a multitude of new jobs that would serve the energy transition.
6/ You explain that copper is perpetually recyclable. Can you describe some of the stages in the life of a tonne of copper?
Once it has emerged from the ground in Chile, copper ore is refined there to isolate the metal. The metal is then processed in Europe to make, for example, electric wire, which will be used for more than 50 years in a Spanish house. Once the house has been destroyed or renovated, the wire will be placed in a waste disposal site, recycled in Turkey and melted down by a metallurgist in France, and will be used for a second life in a French electric car, 60 years after it left Chile.
Ten years later, with 100% of the vehicle recyclable, the copper and other metals will be put to other uses. At each stage, this stock of metals on earth saves the stock of metals underground.
7/ We are witnessing a great return to nuclear power. How do you explain that it has taken so long?
Energy markets are all alike, but nuclear energy markets are different in their own way.
Firstly, there is the intumescence of history and ubris. Germany makes the mistake of abandoning nuclear power because of its ecological blindness. Forty years later, because energy is time consuming, the German Finance Minister recently acknowledged that this German energy strategy is a mistake, because it is based on dependence on renewable energy, illusorily backed and secured by gas, coal and Russian oil, and not on a national decarbonised energy, such as nuclear. Let us note in passing another truth ignored by the ecological dogma: the famous 400,000 German green energy jobs in wind and solar are indeed backed by black jobs in coal, lignite or gas. If the latter fall, the former will also fall, as demonstrated by the return of coal-fired electricity this week in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands to back up renewables when Russian gas runs out.
France has preferred nuclear energy independence to any other consideration. That is to say, as far as carbon is concerned, it already made its energy transition 50 years ago, in the 1970s. But curiously, the generation of boomers who saw this sovereignty being built in their twenties did everything to deconstruct it over the next 50 years, with the help of a doxa dominated by German ecology. Berlin’s current energy failure is thus the powerful engine that puts Parisian nuclear power back on its trajectory of 50 years ago.
Russia or Ukraine have never questioned nuclear electricity despite the Chernobyl tragedy. On the contrary, Moscow has never stopped progressing in this field to the point that Rosatom has conquered the world leadership, taking advantage of the void left by the calamitous management of Areva and its bankruptcy due to the disastrous Uramin operation. If Areva had not been a national company, it would probably have been cut up, sold and “deindustrialized” like Alstom, creating fortunes there too.
China has also taken advantage of the last 20 years to make considerable progress and build a future electrical energy that is less carbon independent and based on hydro, wind and nuclear power.
Finally, the United States, a former world leader, has been working hard to return to the forefront of nuclear power.
These strategies show that ubris, sovereignty, independence and conquest are the driving forces behind the energy doctrines and Strategic Solidarities of countries, whether they are democracies operating under economic and environmental constraints or non-democratic regimes without these same constraints.
The answer to your question about the time that has elapsed for the return of nuclear power in France therefore corresponds to the political time in which a “fashionable” anti-nuclear error of an older generation is recognised as a sternutatory error by the next one and dissolved into the solution.
Time is long in energy, so we must not make mistakes. This is why Berlin can accurately say that suddenly, for the duration of a war, current electricity prices make renewables profitable, but the mistake is not to see that they are unaffordable for consumers. In other words, renewables that are profitable because electricity prices are high because of Russian gas prices is not the solution because this energy doctrine will have facilitated the Russian-Ukrainian disaster. Getting energy wrong in Germany also means reopening lignite-fired power stations when Russian gas is no longer available. Getting energy wrong in Germany and France also means risking the protests that Paris experienced four years ago because of political amateurism and the risk of an economic downgrading because of expensive electricity that is more expensive than that of competing countries, against which carbon taxes at the borders will not be of much help.
Now, given Europe’s electricity interdependencies, Berlin’s new energy policy cannot afford to make a mistake by imposing a second catastrophic energy strategy on itself and Europe in less than 50 years.
On the contrary, Germany must make its revolution of ideas, re-nuclearise its electricity and couple it with its renewables rather than relying on its lignite or Russian gas. A revolution of ideas, because this modern nuclear power must act as a cleaner of our current nuclear waste. It must burn in fast neutron reactors (FNR) atomic charges that will be formed from today’s used fuel. France must also resolutely embark on this path, because the interest is that where 140 tonnes of mined uranium are needed in a current power plant to produce 1GWatt of electricity, only 1.4 tonnes (100 times less) of free waste is needed to produce the same amount of electricity in a FNR.
Free indeed, since this waste recycled into new fuel in the European nuclear circular economy is already stored in Germany or France! They therefore give us independence from uranium mining and other supplies and thus real sovereignty, as we have quantities of spent fuel capable of producing our electricity for 3,000 to 10,000 years.
The imprecision of the figures is an advantage here, because such a long duration transforms nuclear electricity into a virtuous renewable, since this circular nuclear economy ensures a quantity of electricity without waste, controllable, abundant and at a controlled European price for ever.
Controlled indeed, since the commodity, the recycled fuel, is already here. It will also last forever, because after 3 000 to 10 000 years, this controllable, non-intermittent electricity will have enabled us to discover a new form of energy.
Perhaps this will be thorium or the abandonment of nuclear fission and the embarkation on ITER and nuclear fusion, the energy of the stars. There, two buckets of sea water will allow every Frenchman to have electricity for a lifetime, without generating waste.
The difficulty with this prospect is not technical, but political, because this electrical independence destroys an ecological dogma common to Germany and France. As soon as they are burned while producing electricity, the problem of waste is eliminated. We are therefore faced with a choice that requires politicians who really understand technology rather than communication.
With the planned closure of all German reactors, the closure of Fessenheim, the abandonment of the Astrid programme, the small modular reactors, the EPRs and tomorrow the fast neutron reactors or Iter, electrical sovereignty cannot be established in the zigzagging political inconstancy according to electoral vogues. As a philosopher of political manoeuvring once wrote: “The lie is often more plausible, more tempting to reason than reality, for the lie has the great advantage of knowing in advance what the public wishes to hear or expects to hear.”
8/ Tesla CEO Elon Musk signed a contract to deliver nickel and cobalt produced in New Caledonia. Was there any other way to tap into these national resources?
For several decades, the public finances of metropolitan France have invested heavily in the production of New Caledonian nickel, notably through subsidies and fiscal aid. What is the real return on these investments in the metropolitan production apparatus, when New Caledonia’s commercial outlets are not in Europe, but are focused on China, Japan or South Korea? Should we make better use of this state-subsidised resource for the benefit of mainland industry?
To answer these questions, let us specify that in the Great Game of natural resources, the national “natural resources” doctrines of the producer states and those of the consumer states are developed and then collaborate or confront each other. Nowadays, each of these doctrines has a very long-term trajectory and has sometimes become an intergenerational Strategic Solidarity, which successive governments and administrations rarely touch, because they shape the particular relationship between the population and its concept of nation.
Here, the producer countries exercise a strategy of power over their soils or subsoils, and this resource nationalism can be favourable or unfavourable to the consumer countries. The latter, thanks to inventive diplomacy, such as that of China, gain privileged access to these commodities and exercise strategies of influence to obtain supplies from the producer countries, while also engaging in circular economy logics via recycling and more resource-efficient consumption.
For 50 years, this geopolitical balance of power between these countries has rarely and unilaterally favoured the doctrines of consumers or producers. On the contrary, the former gained privileged geopolitical access to resources and the latter benefited from the influence of the consumer countries, in particular to develop their infrastructures or their industries. This influence took the form of transfers of knowledge and skills, the structuring of industrial sectors and production capacities and job creation.
But nowadays, natural resource producers have achieved some progress. The context of natural resource nationalism no longer favours aid for their development, but the inclusion of factories and logistics chains at the foot of their mines with the ultimate aim of exporting not minerals but finished products. These producing countries are gradually replacing the world’s factory: China. Recognising this movement early on, unlike Western factories, Chinese steelmakers have set up shop in Indonesia, for example, at the foot of nickel mines.
This is why, to succeed in its ecological transition, the West must exploit its own mines rather than publish lists of critical metals that are only admissions of its own weaknesses and indecisions.
Building such lists for the purpose of communication is pointless, as these metals are already known and essential to the announced strategic objectives, for example the end of thermal engines in 2035. Furthermore, has China ever published a list of its critical metals or the status of its strategic stocks held under the authority of the National Development and Reform Commission? In economic warfare, this economic intelligence must remain secret.
Let us return to the strategies of power and influence. As I said, they are all the more essential to many States and to post-Cop21 and post-Covid-19 industrial sectors as the shift in the energy transition has made us switch from dependence on hydrocarbons to dependence on the metals needed to generate, transport, store and consume electricity in generators, connectors, battery chargers, accumulators and finally motors.
Moreover, the new world trade order has shifted in 2022 from globalisation to local geopolitics with some new keywords in a grid of sovereignty and independence: free but secure global markets; available, sustainable, securely accessible natural resource supplies; replacement of non-resilient, global ‘just-in-time’ with strategic ‘in case’ local security storage. All this means temporarily higher inflation than in the past, while the relocation crisis is cushioned.
In light of this, how does New Caledonia’s mining doctrine, which is clearly oriented towards Asia, differ from those of its Indonesian or Filipino competitors?
Firstly, New Caledonia has not been agile enough to attract Chinese, Japanese or Korean industries to its territory to produce steel or batteries. These trains have passed by, and that’s quite normal, because Nouméa is unfavourably known for its energy deficit. How can such factories be set up so far from the centres of consumption, without green electricity, which is abundant and cheap, like in New Zealand?
Secondly, unlike its competitors, Nouméa claims a future “green nickel” when it is able to produce it with solar electricity instead of coal or diesel. But what is and what will be the real balance of this “green nickel” with regard to biodiversity? Its mines have not been quick to safeguard the endemic flora, which is dying out or has already disappeared from the island, so what will happen with the “green nickel”? And what about the installation of renewable energies on areas reclaimed from these fragile flora? In a word, what does “green nickel” mean in terms of endemic Caledonian biodiversity, air and water protection?
Finally, what is the nature of New Caledonia’s mining doctrine with regard to the Paris? The latter finances New Caledonian nickel, but will it ever be turned towards French industry? Conversely, what is metropolitan France’s mining doctrine with regard to New Caledonian nickel and, more generally, with regard to mines, when the example of the Salau tungsten mine is emblematic of deleterious zigzags?
Given the current players, there is still no satisfactory proposal to all these questions, except that history teaches us that the management of natural resources is the foundation of big politics. For example, a vision shared between Paris and Nouméa, motivated by the metropolitan investment of the last ten years, needless to go back further, would have justified that New Caledonian nickel be directed towards the French or at least European battery industry, instead of serving Asian steel and the battery factories of Tesla’s Chinese subcontractors. But for this to happen, a real Parisian political and industrial vision was needed.
2500 years ago, the Greek strategist Themistocles expressed the first “natural resources” doctrine in the service of a democracy. His fellow citizens pooled the wealth of the Laurion silver mine to finance 200 ships and defeat the invader Xerxes at Salamis in 480 BC. He had made the right diagnosis that determined the right mining doctrine and the right vision of national defence.
In 1789, before Napoleon, French revolutionaries guided by the general national interest decided that the latter required the exploitation of mines in France so as to avoid importing from its better organised neighbours metals that were nevertheless held in the French subsoil. They organised mining with the help of a system of concessions and a Mines Corps that provided methods and knowledge, they differentiated between the law of the soil and that of the subsoil and relied on a service of competent engineers. This was the starting point of the industry in France.
France of today has not yet reached the stage of such a diagnosis and of the mining doctrine that would follow, because neither of these has been sought methodically and with determination by a policy respectful of the future.