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Could Outer Space be the Key to Expanding our Supply of Rare Metals?

A recent C3 Magazine article explained how removing red tape could make more EVs road-ready. Electric vehicles could lower congestion, traffic collisions, and transport emissions, while untangling the West from reliance on Russian and Middle Eastern oil imports. But resource scarcity and excessive regulations still pose an obstacle to EV adoption. The solutions to supply-chain shortages are within reach — even those as far as in outer space rare earth minerals.

The average electric car requires six times the minerals to construct as conventional combustion engine automobiles. This would require thirty times the lithium, nickel, and other minerals than currently in circulation to meet demand. Consumer demand, inflated by record oil prices and legislative pressure, has driven Tesla prices to a minimum of $47,000. Further escalating mineral costs will keep the wheel out of reach for working families.

>>>Read: Free Market Reforms Can Put More EVs on the Road

The U.S. has become completely dependent on imports for at least twenty critical minerals eighty percent of which comes from China. As has Canada, who have pledged to ban sales of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035. Canada is among the top five global producers for potash, diamonds, gemstones, gold, indium, niobium, platinum group metals, titanium concentrate and uranium. However, Canada exported almost no lithium in 2020 — instead increasing their imports by $12 million from 2019, with ninety-one percent from China, Chile, Russia, and the US.

The UK is also flooring it on wholesale EV adoption. New combustion engine vehicles will be banned from production, importing, and sale by 2030. “Jet Zero” aims to make the aviation industry go carbon neutral by 2050 too. Britain imports over 2200 tonnes of lithium annually. Its top import from Russia was precious metals, minerals, and coins — valued at $17.42 billion annually. Following sanctions placed on the Putin regime, the London Metal Exchange blocked nickel trading, after a short-squeeze caused the price to spike 250 percent to over $100,000 a tonne. Both metals are crucial for manufacturing expanded battery capacity — both  for electric vehicle adoption, and decarbonising our energy grids. It is possible, soon, that the scarcity of minerals will make printed currencies more valuable to melt than hold.

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Another squeeze on supply chains comes via China. China owns more than a third of world mineral reserves. Their Belt & Road Initiative has devoured the economies of 140 countries with over $1 trillion in high-interest loans. When nations default on said loans, China can annex key infrastructure and resources. State-owned corporations have purchased exclusive mining rights to forty rare ore deposits in Zimbabwe. A deal signed this year granted Beijing access to the “white goldrush” beneath Argentina’s salt flats.

China’s early recognition of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was likely to secure ownership of their $1 trillion mineral deposits — including the world’s largest lithium reserves. This imperialism cements Chinese dominance in battery manufacturing: producing eighty percent of the world’s annual capacity.

President Xi’s willingness to intercede in ceasefire negotiations in Ukraine may be an indicator that China is keen to absorb an economically ostracised Russia into their Belt and Road. Access to their oil reserves and mineral deposits would be a great strategic advantage against oil-dependent manufacturing rival India, and a decarbonising West. They leveraged this rare mineral dominance a decade ago, to pressure Japan into releasing detained trawlers. Recently, the Communist Party’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology instructed mining and distribution companies to implement price controls to ensure they maintain a regular supply. The more the West needs these minerals, the more precarious our national and energy security position becomes, as we subject ourselves to markets manipulated by the Chinese state.

So, what’s the solution?

Liberalising rare mineral mining regulations could aid in accessing the US and UK’s domestic supplies. The Journal of Air Law and Commerce foresees space to be “the new Western frontier” for property rights. Existing legislation has furtively begun governing this next goldrush. The Obama Administration’s U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act implements a “finders keepers” policy — making space first-come, first-serve. Going further, Lauren E. Shaw suggests laws regulating an asteroid mining economy should model themselves on the General Mining Law of 1872, which stated:

“All valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the United States, both surveyed and unsurveyed, are hereby declared to be free and open to exploration and purchase, and the lands in which they are found to occupation and purchase, by citizens of the United States and those who have declared their intention to become such, under regulations prescribed by law, and according to the local customs or rules of miners in the several mining-districts, so far as the same are applicable and not inconsistent with the laws of the United States.”

The law enabled miners, abiding by accessory legislation concerning environmental pollution, could prospect as they pleased. The same may be applied to the undiscovered riches of outer space rare earth minerals.

Existing criticism of the law concerns whether miners are liable for pollution produced by extraction efforts on federal land. PERC pointed out that deficiencies in liability lie in other legislation entangling itself in the Mining Law. This makes asteroid mining a perfect place to set environmental precedent that likely polluters are liable to damage inflicted on the atmosphere — considering the obvious concern of orbiting debris.

>>>READ: U.S. Rare Earth Independence from China Still Has Years to Go, Experts Say

But the scale of rapid EV and renewables adoption may require more stratospheric ambition to achieve. The commercialisation of space travel may be the key to mining outer space rare earth minerals in asteroids.

Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson, and Elon Musk all launched recreational space flight tests last year. This billionaire space-race could lead to leaps and bounds in innovation — just as the original Cold War competition created the modem computer. Should space-flight become safer and less expensive, near-Earth objects could be intercepted for mineral extraction. Astronomers calculated two metallic asteroids within Earth’s orbit contain precious metals worth $11.65 trillion. Senator Cruz’s prediction that the first trillionaire would be made in space could come true.

Just as the original space race was a muscular assertion of the supremacy of American enterprise and industry, this new space resource scramble is motivated by the need to reduce reliance on our totalitarian adversaries. We were first to the moon to show the world that socialism is not the way. Now, we could be first to mine outer space rare earth minerals to put cleaner cars on our roads. 

Connor Tomlinson is the Head of Research for the British Conservation Alliance and a political commentator for Young Voices UK. He appears regularly in American Spectator and on talkRadio. Follow him on Twitter: @Con_Tomlinson

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

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