Proper mineral extraction is critical for the energy transition
As announced during the Future Minerals Summit held in Riyadh a few weeks ago, Saudi Arabia has the largest mineral deposits in the Middle East.
The Arabian Shield, located in the west part of the Kingdom, covers an area of 600,000 kilometers and contains ample mineral and precious mineral deposits, including gold, silver, copper, zinc, chromium, manganese, tungsten, lead, tin, aluminum and iron.
New discoveries of gold, copper, zinc and silver were also recently uncovered near Taif, where the UK’s Gold & Minerals Co. is setting up operations, thus creating investment opportunities and new jobs in the region. The average cost of building a mine is about $200 million, with the potential to create jobs for about 700 people. This is significant.
In fact, the GCC region and the Middle East in general is rich in different minerals — not just oil and gas. For instance, the GCC accounts for almost 20 percent of global aluminum production, excluding China. It also accounts for about 10 percent of the world’s phosphate rock production.
Saudi Arabia produces about 9 million metric tons of phosphate fertilizer, making Ma’aden one of the top three global producers of this substance. Jordan is also a major producer of phosphates in the region, ranking fifth in phosphate production worldwide.
The good news is that many of these minerals are needed for energy transition.
One of the key components in the production of electrical vehicles is batteries. Cobalt and lithium are two main minerals used in the production of electric vehicle batteries. Lithium in particular is a critical component in the production of the lithium-ion batteries needed to produce electric vehicles. Interestingly, some of the world’s largest lithium reserves are found in Mexico.
On the other hand, wind turbines rely on a number of critical minerals, including cobalt, copper, manganese and nickel. Under the 2 degrees Celsius climate scenario, a 250 percent rise in demand is expected for key minerals used in wind turbines, including aluminum, chromium, copper, iron, lead, manganese, molybdenum, neodymium, nickel and zinc.
And let’s not forget solar, which will supply more than half of the estimated renewable energy capacity in the next five years. Copper, nickel and zinc are key to the production of solar panels.
Due to these and more, the World Bank estimates that the world will need 5 million tons of copper during the next 25 years to meet global demand!
Companies and governments have increasingly been exploring the deep sea, where key minerals can be found in large quantities. But the environmental impact on the oceans due to these activities ought to be weighed.
In fact, the mining industry will need to make sure that the extraction and production of these minerals is done in an environmentally friendly way to ensure that it complies with zero-carbon targets.
Labor and human rights abuses remain in the mining industries of some regions, mainly in Africa, Latin America and China. For instance, in Zambia, the seventh biggest producer of copper, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s Transition Minerals Tracker recorded numerous allegations of human and labor rights abuses. Most of these allegations were associated with environmental impacts, access to water and impacts on health and land rights.
Another example of this is in Latin America. About 60 percent of global lithium production is located in the “lithium triangle” — an area encompassing Chile, Argentina and Bolivia — where lithium is contained in saltwater brines. It is extracted through an evaporation process which makes it significantly cheaper to mine compared to conventional hard rock mining. However, indigenous communities around these mining operations have raised concerns over unequal benefit-sharing and disruption to their livelihoods.
The industry will need to be watchful of their operations and practices as companies expand to new communities. Mining companies need to ensure that the communities in which they operate also benefit from their increasing activities.
But the fact remains that mining is playing an increasingly central role in energy transition, and this is expected to increase exponentially as the world moves toward clean energy with electrical vehicles, solar and wind leading the way.
With an estimated potential of $1.3 trillion, Saudi Arabia’s mining sector is set for significant foreign direct investment during the next 10 years, in line with Vision 2030, whereby mining is positioned to be the third pillar for economic contribution to the Saudi economy after oil, gas and petrochemicals.
Saudi Arabia’s bold move to strengthen its mining industry can only be good for the world as it moves toward energy transition, and for the economy of Saudi Arabia.
• Fuad Al-Zayer is an independent energy consultant. He is former head of Data Services Division at OPEC and a former head of the JODI Global Initiative at the IEF.