Michelle Michot Foss - Apr 07,2021

We talk increasingly about “critical minerals,” sources for elements spanning the periodic table that are vital, considered to be strategically important, and for which substitutes are very difficult and expensive or simply nonexistent. In the grand competition among nation states to decarbonize and reach “net zero,” the rush of one-upmanship ignores an important truth: Hydrocarbons are critical minerals, permeating all facets of human existence and endeavor. The myriad activist pressures and government responses to limit, ban or otherwise penalize access to the extraction of and use of the most common sources of hydrocarbon molecules -- petroleum and natural gas -- are unwise, risky and represent forms of trade restrictions. Oil and gas are actually essential to the development of alternative sources of energy and decarbonization.

Government actions in opposition to oil and gas introduce a range of potentially dangerous insecurities. We have been there, and done all of this before with oil and seen the consequences. That past experience, in large part, underlies notions of the criticality of minerals.

The fundamental dilemma remains that both energy and materials are required and essential. Public understanding of the economic rudiments of hydrocarbons is poor. Lack of awareness makes it easy to ignore economic realities underlying the supply of hydrocarbons and the enormous variety of products derived from them. Most important and by far the biggest hurdle in decarbonizing is the leveraging of fuels and materials that hydrocarbons afford -- including the storage of energy inherent in these fuels. Hydrocarbon co-products and byproducts are building blocks for intermediate and final goods we use every day. By amortizing costs of extracting, processing and manufacturing across fuels and materials the outcome is an achievement of scale and scope that makes everyday products affordable.

Every defense and non-defense technology, every consumer and industrial product, every vision of the future requires the molecules derived from combinations of carbon and hydrogen with other elements. These form the basis for materials without which we cannot live. If nothing else, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the immense significance of materials supply chains. Without medical-grade plastics for ventilators and intravenous equipment, food-grade plastics to secure and support distribution of supplies and countless other indispensable applications, our very survival is at risk.

Because of the overwhelming focus on fuels and fuel combustion, the "easy” alternative solutions for hydrocarbon energy fuels greatly understate and misrepresent the materials requirements and challenges. From blades for wind turbines to tires, and much else, for electric vehicles (EVs), hydrocarbons will continue to be primary ingredients for all energy technologies and modes of transportation. Plastics comprise roughly 50% of materials content by volume of conventional internal combustion vehicles, according to the American Chemistry Council. This proportion will increase with demand for advanced materials to support electric and electronic components, and to reduce vehicle weight as makers strive to improve performance of batteries.

Unintended Consequences

Nor are consumers and voters well informed about the host of potential unintended consequences in the push to remove hydrocarbons and other fossil fuels from the energy mix. Take wind power, as an example. The gold rush for new projects is driving a surge in harvesting of fast-growing, lightweight woods for wind turbine blades and magnets from rare-earth elements. The lumber targeted by developers, such as balsa wood, is mostly from environmentally sensitive equatorial zones with overlogging, land and water degradation, coastal runoff and marine pollution and myriad other impacts. Blade manufacturing still requires hydrocarbons-based resins and coatings, and increasingly polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) to substitute for wood cores. According to a recent article in Low-Tech Magazine, “one 60 meter long fiberglass blade weighs 17 metric tons, meaning that a 5 MW wind turbine produces more than 50 metric tons of plastic composite waste from the blades alone.” Reliability issues with wind mean falling back on natural gas or, in many countries, coal or oil for backup and load balancing, or batteries for energy storage. Batteries encompass vast minerals and materials supply chains and energy intense manufacturing and logistics. Metals for batteries, magnets and endless other needs entail exposure to a variety of elements that pose public risks. Wind power requires large commitments to new high-voltage transmission capacity that, along with the large land and marine footprints of wind farms and land disposal of decommissioned blades, raise attendant right of way, visibility and ecosystems infringements. Very little content associated with wind energy is “Made in USA,” leading to misperceptions about domestic job creation. Reliance on imports means a contribution to trade deficits. Because taxpayer support is crucial for financial backing of wind projects, tax dollars also leak out of the US economy. Efforts to patriate or repatriate key raw materials and manufacturing, in order to increase American content, and to mitigate assorted systemic risk factors associated with integrating wind at a larger scale could bend cost curves upward, countering a basic argument for wind -- as well as solar and batteries -- that they are "cheap."

The multiple dimensions in the wind energy example apply to all alternative energy options. Biofuels and biomaterials are one of the few possibilities yielding both energy and potentially materials feedstocks, but they bear massive consequences for soils, water and marine environments. Alluring concepts around hydrogen, with hydrocarbons an available and accessible source, entail requirements for metals and other inputs that so far have encumbered commercialization of fuel cells. In sum, each alternative implies new considerations and risks that must be uncovered and mitigated. As we try to accelerate development of any alternatives to fossil fuels (and nuclear, to satisfy those diktats), the tradeoffs will become more obvious and many choices may simply be unacceptable.

Dependence on Critical Materials

When it comes to oil and natural gas markets, decades of effort have improved transparency, created diversity of supply sufficient to break down trade barriers, built workably competitive markets and instilled discreet pricing for hydrocarbon molecules. These accomplishments range across different types and grades of petroleum and petroleum fuels, for direct delivery of natural gas and for the array of natural gas liquids produced in varying and unpredictable quantities from every well and field. We still have plenty of unfinished business to improve or establish sustainable commercial frameworks in many parts of the world, but the sophistication of petroleum markets does help reduce supply risks.

In contrast, the suites of critical non-fuel minerals and co- and byproducts are burdened by lack of transparency, a paucity of open markets, choke points in investment and plenty of trade restrictions and barriers. They are marked by the emergence of a dominant player -- China. While helping to enlarge the global supply of important elements, minerals and materials, China is simultaneously limiting supply chain access through its investment and lending practices and its own export trade restrictions. Along with Russia, the two countries wield undue influence in other mineral-rich locations. They present supply chain security considerations equal to, if not exceeding, geopolitical risks that have long permeated the global oil and gas businesses.

To be able to truly achieve sustainable growth on all environmental fronts, we need to change our thinking. The choice is not a simple binary one: For or against hydrocarbons. We must instead focus on materials requirements and trade-offs, and identify intended and unintended consequences, all of which will ensure a balanced approach to how we deal with our hydrocarbon resource assets.

Michelle Michot Foss is a Fellow in Energy, Minerals & Materials at Rice University's Baker Institute of Public Policy-Center for Energy Studies. Previous versions of this article appeared on the web sites of Forbes and Baker Institute Blog. She also is a member of the Energy Intelligence Advisory Board.


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