“Rare metals” policy is populist

In Le monde 21/11/2019

Let’s reverse the fake-news of rare metals

In the real world, “rare metals” do not exist. They have never been defined by geological criteria – they are not impossible to find , or economic criteria – they are not expensive because they are rare. It is a fake news, a misinformation whose first victims are statesmen. In producing countries, they are intoxicated by the “rare metals” and command it to be a geopolitical element in their power strategies. The politician of the consumer country, also enchanted by the “rare metals” , engages in simplifying proposals, without nuances and errors, leading to political errors and, as a result, destabilizations in favour of populism.

The current example of the European Airbus of battery is no exception. The industrial initiative is undoubtedly an excellent way of catching up with Europe’s three world leaders, China, Korea and Japan.

But the Minister in charge of the economy is probably a victim of the infox when he declares, during a visit to the STMicroelectronics site in Crolles (Isère) on 22 March 2019, to link the relevance of this plan to “rare metals” : “On this sector, we must have the same logic: that of keeping it from beginning to end. We will therefore work on it, from the search for rare metals (with countries such as Chile or Argentina), to the production of the electric battery, including its integration into the car...”

“Rare deposits”… in Alsace!

Which of these “rare metals” remained undetermined in the declaration? The two countries named arrows lithium. But in this case, mining efforts upstream and research and development downstream have already taken it away from scarcity. Its price – which has collapsed – shows a certain abundance, and its exploitation is guided by the level of competitive operating costs, rather than by exclusive access to “rare deposits”, one of which has just been found… in Alsace!

In addition, there is no confirmation that future batteries will use as much lithium as they do today; they may not even use it at all. Will the rarity hoax also lead us to harmful political decisions in other metals, such as cobalt? Although its unit industrial quantities used in batteries are constantly decreasing, the fake-news of rare or “inobtainium metals” seems to be causing some agitation in mining circles around rumours of cobalt mine acquisition in the Democratic Republic of Congo, between Kolwezi and Lubumbashi.

Not to mention vanadium, whose price fell after a mini crisis in 2018, or rare earths, whose prices are at their lowest level in almost ten years and which are found everywhere, even in Greenland.

On the other hand, a powerful policy would have been to announce the ambition to develop technologies free of a dependence on metals that are really not available, or made from abundant metals.

The imposture of fashion effects, the vanity of creating news

Why did these infoxes take up the subject of “rare metals” ? There are two hypotheses. The first one is classic. It would be a tactical component of the broader trade warfare policy between the United States and China. In President Trump’s United States this resolutely anti-Chinese hoax is popular. It has also widened in concentric circles by accusing China of having initiated a metal conflict, then of having formed a blocus of “rare metals” by closing mines outside China. The infox has also contradicted itself, since it condemns both the Beijing embargo and mining pollution in China, in poor countries and mines in the West. Then China is accused of making green electric cars with “red” batteries, made from metals from African conflicts. The last known stage of the hoax, in this context of inaccuracies is EV being denigrated. In this context of fake-news, which industrialist would commit himself with faith to a caricatured political stance on “inobtainium” resources? This accumulation of fake news in France probably played against Paris and in favour of Berlin in choosing the location of the European Tesla plant.

The second hypothesis on the origin of the infox of “rare metals” would be the narcissistic desire specific to our communication age: the imposture of fashion effects, the vanity of creating news, also acquiring notoriety and “making the buzz” by a hoax ready to corrupt to last. Are the two hypotheses related? It’s likely, the second having accepted to be the vassal of the first

Four types of metals

We must reverse the infox of “rare metals” , otherwise political discourse will be excluded from real life, their impacts on populations will no longer be understood and the link with the industrial world will be lost. The reality is that the shift in energy transition is gradually shifting us from dependence on hydrocarbons to dependence on the metals needed to produce, store, transport and consume electricity. There are four types of these metals.

The first is the “abundant” metal, because it is sought, discovered, transformed and recycled. But when one of these steps fails, or when production falls or consumption increases, a metal becomes “sensitive”. When there are high risks of deficit without possible substitution, a metal becomes “critical”. Finally, a metal essential to the sovereign missions of the State is “strategic”.

In other words, solutions exist for the energy transition, and the hoax of “rare metals” is useless to save the planet, it is even dangerous because the logic of fake-news implies that the threat of a virtual shortage of “rare metals” is met with a bellicose reaction, as were the oil wars. Will it be necessary to have wars over copper, nickel, platinum, rhenium, beryllium, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, niobium…?

Reversing the infox of metals

In this regard, it is fortunate that the Chinese President’s statements threatening to impose an embargo on his “important strategic resources” of lanthanides this summer following the Huawei sanctions by the United States have remained… only statements: wisely, Beijing did not respond to President Trump with a rare earth embargo.

Beyond escaping such an absurd metal war, the disappearance of the hoax would be essential above all to the realization of models advocating 100% renewable electricity, such as, for example, at EDF, in Germany or the Green New Deal proposed by the American Democratic Party. How can such an ecological transition be achieved, as far as it is technically possible, in the middle of a battlefield, where “inobtainium metals” would be at stake?

Reversing the infox of “rare metals” will be achieved through “metal peace”, industrial and diplomatic cooperation including Beijing, Moscow and other technology and metal producers. By bringing together, the truth about the real state of the planet’s resources will respond to the ecological promise of a controlled climate and an energy transition that will no longer confuse populist discourse with democratic reforms.