PM Morrison Embarks on Critical Metals Learning Curve

COMMODITY CAPERS: It may have been dragged kicking and screaming to the beachhead, but the Morrison Government has finally, and publicly, dipped its collective toe in the critical minerals sector waters.

The government recently announced a policy it declared would leverage, “Australia’s world-leading critical mineral and resources sector to create more jobs and economic opportunities for manufacturing businesses with the release of a new ten year plan”.

The Morrison government’s use of the term “new” in release of the new road map policy does have something of a hollow ring about it, especially given his now embattled Defence Minister spoke to the Federal Government’s efforts of championing the critical minerals sector at the New World Metals Conference in Perth in November 2020.

At the time, Reynolds highlighted its inclusion in the 2020 Federal Budget, garnering support for a new critical minerals processing capability in Australia.

“This is part of the $1.5 billion modern manufacturing strategy,” Reynolds declared.

“This strategy recognises identifies critical minerals processing as a national manufacturing priority, and this funding will build on Australia’s natural competitive advantage in this space.

“Additionally, in response to industry feedback, the government has announced significant reforms to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, something that I know will be most welcome to many of you today.

“The fund has been extended by five years to 2026.

“Steps are also being taken to turbo-charge the investment program, making it easier for projects to receive funding.

“The Federal Government is taking these steps to support the industry’s development and to make it absolutely clear to overseas investors that these projects are strategically important to the Australian government, that they are viable, that they are worthy of investment, that the Morrison government means business.”

The minister highlighted the need for the industry to create supply chains that are ethical and sustainable, indicating that Australia now has an opportunity to demonstrate to the world our credentials as an extractives partner of choice.

She signalled the development of a National Ethical Certification Scheme by the Critical Minerals Facilitation Office was underway, which will help to progress this.

“We all know that this industry presents a great opportunity for Australian industry, and particularly so for Western Australia,” Senator Reynolds said in conclusion.

“It’s now time for you to do what you do best, and to work together to grow this industry.

“I can assure you I will continue to champion the credentials of this industry, domestically and globally.

“But we all have to work together to achieve this common outcome.”

Dubbed: The Resources Technology and Critical Minerals Processing road map, the government claims this new policy will show businesses how to capitalise on Australia’s access to the resources that will be used in developing and manufacturing new technologies.

Morrison’s launch also included the announcement of a $1.3 billion Modern Manufacturing Initiative that is opened to help manufacturers scale-up production, commercialise products and tap into global supply chains.

“Manufacturing businesses and jobs will be central to our National Economic Recovery Plan as we build back from the COVID-19 recession,” the Prime Minister said.

“Our $1.5 billion Modern Manufacturing Strategy… (is) focused on growing our entire manufacturing sector.

“Our Modern Manufacturing Initiative will help position Australia as not just a global leader in the resources sector but also in the manufacturing of the technology used, as well as turning the raw materials into value-added products.

“Today’s funding will help unlock investment from industry to help build manufacturing capability and competitiveness in Australia’s resources sector while taking advantage of a significant global growth sector.

“This investment and this Roadmap will support jobs across Australia, particularly in our resource rich regions like the Hunter, Western Australia and Central Queensland.”

As eager as Morrison is to display his critical metals attributes, he has to take a third place behind a lot of daylight and his Federal Minister for Defence, whose presence at the 2020 New World Metals Conference displayed a much deeper understanding of the industry.

Reynolds eagerly presented her credentials as a card-carrying, “long-term advocate” for the Critical Minerals and Rare Earths industry to conference delegates.

The minister explained how a couple of years ago she had travelled to South Africa to attend the Indaba mining conference where she had a revelation regarding the need to, “kick start a lithium industry” in Australia.

“And we need to do that right here in Western Australia,” she stressed.

“Batteries are required in everything we use today, and there is certainly no sight of that demand slowing down.

“And as we all know; it is not just lithium.

“Electric vehicle and battery manufacturers are also securing sources of minerals, materials, and components to meet this demand.

“From mining to refining, to production and assembly, Australia must now maximise our opportunities in this rapidly developing industry.

“I believe in the potential of this sector, and I also recognise its strategic value to our nation.”

Senator Reynolds recalled how in 2018 she led a delegation to Canberra to raise awareness of the critical minerals industry, accompanied by other parliamentarians and diplomats.

Even back then the ideas of how important it is to develop secure global supply chains, “free from monopolisation and a range of market risks”.

“Globally, the supply chain challenges of COVID-19 have brought this issue into further sharp relief,” Reynolds continued.

Morrison’s critical metals urgency may be seen, by the more cynical amongst us, to be a way of shoring up votes in marginal regions, however, he could also be responding to noises from the European Union, which although naming Australia amongst countries it believes need to pull more weight in carbon reductions, it is also realistic in making space for Australian producers of Critical Raw Materials to enter its realm.

Turn on your wireless any morning of any day and you can be guaranteed the news bulletin will include a pseudo finance report that keeps you up to date with current iron ore and gold prices.

Although these commodities are at present important to the Australian economy, especially during the past year, these reports are not as ‘up to date’ as they possibly could be.

They may lead the pack; however, gold and iron ore are being dogged by a new batch of minerals that are becoming more and more important to daily life.

Although some of the political class like to claim otherwise, reducing carbon emissions and energy consumption are important to the survival of the planet – and some political careers.

Unfortunately, it is the latter of those lives that provide the impetus to do anything about carbon emissions and energy consumption, but at least it is on the agenda, albeit in perfunctory terms for now.

Modern technology is constantly shifting up a gear as it challenges old-time thinking to achieve the reduction in carbon emissions and energy consumption demanded by a growing demographic.

The technologies that are emerging and developing to help reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption rely, to a high degree, on Critical Raw Materials.

Modern technology such as: wind generators – these use permanent magnets made from rare earths and boron; solar panels – their manufacture a reliability relies on indium, gallium, silicon, and boron; batteries for energy storage and electric mobility – the old energy market stalwart lithium, joined by cobalt, natural graphite, and silicon.

New technologies rely more on Critical Raw Materials than the technologies they replace, and the use of specialty materials will only increase as material science advances.

Speaking via video at the 2020 New World Metals Conference in Perth, the Ambassador to the Delegation of the European Union to Australia, Dr Michael Pulch said the Critical Raw Materials that are used in modern-day technology are essential for our daily lives and for the economies of tomorrow.

“Rare Earth Elements being used in night vision goggles for our defence forces to the lithium in my plug-in hybrid car to the germanium in the smart phone on my desk,” Dr Pulch said.

“These materials – often taken for granted – are both economically important and vulnerable to supply disruptions.”

Dr Pulch informed the viewing audience that the European Commission had adopted and action-planned on Critical Raw Materials.

The actions of the Commission presented the EU a list of Critical Raw Materials, as well as ten actions to make Europe’s supply of raw materials more resilient and sustainable.

“The Critical Raw Materials list identified thirty materials with both the highest risk of supply, and economic importance for Europe,” Dr Pulch continued.

The Commission’s first action was to implement the creation of the European Raw Materials Alliance, charged with the objective to secure supply by diversifying the EU’s sources of raw materials from resource-rich countries, such as Australia.

The Alliance hopes to strengthen the resilience of the EU’s value chains, which are vital for many industrial ecosystems.

Its formation follows the model of previous industrial alliances – such as the European Battery Alliance by bringing together industrial actors, and EU Member States to get projects off the ground.

“The Alliance’s first mission will be to build an open, strategic economy for the rare earths and magnets value chain as they are essential for electric car and wind turbine manufacturing,” Dr Pulch explained.

The formation of the European Raw Materials Alliance provides the opening of a new market for Australian companies operating in the space.

Currently, the EU relies heavily on imports from third countries, and it would be no surprise to discover China being one of the major trade partners, in fact it is where the EU gets 98 per cent of its rare earth elements.

“The Alliance can help the EU forge new partnerships with third countries, such as Canada, and Australia, as well as better integrating interested African countries into European value chains,” Dr Pulch said.

“Initially, companies from third countries that agree with the aims of the Alliance will be able to join.”

That Australia is on the invite list to the EU alliance party was made evident recently when companies were invited to be part of a video conference of European Union and Australian leaders with the President of the European Commission.

The EU recognises the need to establish more importation links with global markets for all raw materials, not only those identified as critical and to diversify supply in a sustainable way.

“Partnering with countries, such as Australia, which are committed to the same values of socially and environmentally sound sourcing, is one way of achieving this,” Dr Pulch continued.

“Developing partnerships requires a solid framework and a clear mandate.

“The EU and Australia have a common commitment to fair and undistorted trade investment in the raw materials sector.

“It is in the interest of both parties to explore our synergies.”

The EU has acknowledged Australian commitments to lead an ethical, secure and environmentally sustainable supply of critical minerals, including processed materials, which is good for all parties concerned as the EU has stated it will be looking to source Critical Raw Materials with the lowest possible greenhouse gas and environmental footprint.

“Equally, the extraction and production of these materials need to respect the surrounding communities and their culture,” Dr Pulch declared.

“The European Union’s action-planned on Critical Raw Materials includes research on more environmentally friendly methods of extraction and processing.

“Australia has already signalled interest in linking up on our research activities.”