August 24, 2019
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Copper and lithium, Chile's crown jewels

By Gerard Soler

Santiago de Chile, Aug 16 (efe-epa).- One in every four tons of the world's copper supply comes from Chile, a country with mining in its DNA, and one that also has the world's largest reserves of lithium, often dubbed "white gold", a coveted mineral that will be key in the coming years with the rise of electric mobility.

The history of Chile and its economy are closely linked to mining, first with the buoyant salt industry at the beginning of the last century and later with the exploitation of copper.

Essential in the transmission of energy, copper has become a cornerstone of the Chilean economy and last year amounted to almost 50 percent of its exports.

Chile's hegemony is not at risk for the next few years thanks to the large copper reserves the South American country enjoys and the continued demand for the metal.

"Chile has a third of the world's reserves, we can continue to operate at the same speed for at least thirty years, plus everything that can be added with the development of the deposits, and the demand for copper looks pretty healthy worldwide,” Jorge Cantallops, director of Studies and Public Policies for the Chilean Copper Commission (Cochilco), told Efe.

Excessive dependence on copper is dangerous for the Chilean economy as it is exposed to fluctuations in international markets. Authorities have insisted for years on the need to diversify the productive matrix, but it is not easy to shed a pervasive mining heritage.

Last year Chile produced a whopping 5.8 million tons of copper, a record figure, boosted by the fact both international and national companies work in a hyper-specialized way using cutting edge technology.

The world's largest copper producer is the state-owned company Codelco and in the private sector, Chile's Antofagasta Minerals and others with foreign capital such as Escondida or Collahuasi stand out.

Juan Carlos Guajardo, executive director of the consulting firm Plusmining told Efe that all these companies use "absolutely mature, proven and reliable" technologies, but until recently they had left innovation on the backburner.

The high levels of investment and risk in the industry traditionally meant mining companies left the development of technological innovations in the hands of companies that specialized in mining services, but this has begun to change.

"The mining companies themselves have realized that they need to accelerate their innovation process and look for formulas to accelerate technological innovation options," Guajardo continued.

Some companies have strengthened their areas of innovation, others seek financing in investment funds or strengthen ties with their suppliers to work on innovative projects.

In a mining landscape dominated by copper, in recent years lithium, a mineral used to make batteries for phones, laptops and electric vehicles, has started to emerge as a key resource.

The Salar de Atacama, in the north of the country, has the world's largest lithium reserves, but Chile is not the main global producer of it.

In 2018 Australia surpassed Chile for the first time, with some 51,000 metric tons compared to 16,000 in the South American country.

According to Guajardo, this is due to Chilean regulation, which declared lithium a strategic mineral and limited the exploitation rights to two companies: the Chilean SQM and the American Albemarle.

This has caused the Chilean lithium industry to lose competitiveness against countries such as Australia or Argentina, which have decidedly opted for its exploitation.

Cantallops, of Cochilco, points out that, compared to copper, lithium production is almost marginal.

He also said that experts could not agree on whether lithium batteries will be the technology of the future in terms of energy storage.

The founder of the consulting firm Plusmining agreed that lithium will have "a window" in which it will be the protagonist, but it has more risk of being surpassed by other technologies.

"Copper seems to have a clearer track, there is more certainty that it will continue to grow regardless of the path that is consolidated within electromobility because, after all, all roads lead to greater consumption of electrical energy and in that field, copper is fundamental, " he said.

One of the main challenges of mining is to reduce the impact of its activity on the environment, an issue that has become a key concern due to the increased demands of the authorities and the pressure of civil society groups.

The major problem of copper mines are mine dumps, waste areas that are the product of mineral concentration processes.

In the case of lithium, its extraction requires a large consumption of water in an area that suffers from a deep water shortage and threatens the salt ecosystem.

Matías Asun, general director of Greenpeace Chile, believes that mining is a "protected activity" under Chilean law, which allows it to operate with "tolerance limits that other productive sectors do not have."

"The image of mining as a traditional activity that could bring progress, today is perceived as an activity that hopefully does not happen near my house," the activist told Efe. EFE-EPA

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Jair Bolsonaro encourages small-scale mining in Amazon despite criticism

By Antonio Torres

São Paulo, Brazil, Aug 14 (efe-epa).- Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has said he is willing to legalize small-scale mining of mineral reserves in the Amazon to bring "progress" to indigenous territories, despite criticism from the international community.

Forty years after the opening of the Serra Pelada gold mine, one of the largest in the world, the gold rush continues to grip the Amazon, where mining continues despite decades of struggle against unregulated excavation.

Brazil has 321 illegal mining sites distributed across 132 areas, most of them concentrated on the banks of the Amazonian river Tapajós, according to data collected by the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network and published in December.

Indigenous communities and environmentalists have denounced an advance of garimpeiros, independent mineral prospectors, on Yanomami land, the largest reserve of villages in Brazil which consists of 9.6 million hectares distributed between the northern states of Roraima and Amazonas.

It is estimated that there have been up to 20,000 illegal garimpeiros in recent months, almost six times more than a year ago, an environmental activist who works in the region told Efe anonymously for fear of reprisals.

He said that illegal mining has grown in the midst of Brazil’s economic crisis, a reduction of control in the region and statements by Bolsonaro, which have encouraged the garimpeiros.

In his election campaign, Bolsonaro reiterated his intention to review all indigenous demarcations as he considers them an obstacle to economic growth and has underlined his willingness to legalize small-scale mining in these protected lands.

"I want the Indian, if he wants to exploit mining in his land, do it, because there are diamonds and gold in the reserves," Bolsonaro said.

“And if the Indian wants to plant in his land, let him do it, because many of the 'defenders' of the Indians want to see them doing nothing and as prehistoric beings.”

Around 86% of Brazilians oppose allowing mining companies to operate in indigenous lands, according to a survey released this month by the Datafolha Institute contracted by the NGO Socio-Environmental Institute.

The activity is currently illegal, but Bolsonaro intends to reverse this to offer "dignity" to workers and provide them with information on how to "preserve the environment".

The Brazilian Constitution states that mining in indigenous territories can only be carried out with the prior approval of a law by the National Congress.

Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which has been law in Brazil since 2004, states that indigenous peoples should be consulted at all stages on any mining project "to determine if their interests would be harmed".

The invasion of garimpeiros in Yanomami lands, the largest since 1992, has left a trail of pollution in the rivers, which are now stained by mercury, and increased sedimentation in the riverbed, causing the destruction of forest, according to the NGO ISA.

The presence of illegal mining is also synonymous with violence and prostitution and hides an "imminent" risk of contact with isolated indigenous communities.

Bolsonaro has said that indigenous people are being manipulated by non-governmental organizations and that they are not "willing to take care of their lives". EFE-EPA

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Africa, the world's great mine

Johannesburg, Aug 14 (efe-epa).- The African continent, often dubbed the great mine of the world, has a third of the planet's mineral reserves, and its weight is even greater in metals such as gold, diamonds or platinum.

Under African soil lies a treasure trove of more than 40 percent of world's gold stocks, 55 percent of its diamonds, 66 percent of its cobalt and more than 80 percent of its platinum.

This enormous wealth coexists with socio-political crises that have resulted in armed conflicts — like the one in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) — and have fed the rampant corruption that is endemic on the continent.

Institutional weakness and underdevelopment of infrastructure further complicate a sector plagued by a history of colonialism and plunder.

To this, there is the added concern of the sector's impact on the environment, the potential health problems workers are exposed to and the woeful conditions for workers with regards to salaries and safety.

But the challenges of intensive extraction spearheaded by large Western, South African and Asian companies are slight compared to the lack of control of the informal sector and illegal and sometimes deadly mining where workers are exposed to inhumane conditions and children are exploited.

According to experts, small-scale and informal mining are proportionately much more harmful in almost all areas, while large global companies have improved their levels of responsibility.

MINERALES: THE BACKBONE OF SUB-SAHARIAN ECONOMIES

Minerals are a fundamental component of the regional economy and in some countries there is a strong dependence, especially in the southern half of the continent.

The Asian market is the sector's primary trading partner, with China standing out as the main importer of these minerals.In countries like Botswana — the most stable democracy in Africa and where the most valuable diamonds in the world hail from — in 2017, the mining sector accounted for 19 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) and 92 percent of exports, according to data from World Bank (WB).

In Zambia, mining that year accounted for about 80 percent of total exports.

These exports were dominated by copper, a key mineral for the development of new technologies.

The largest deposits of copper are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which also houses the world's largest reserves of coltan, a mineral used in telecommunications, microelectronics and the aerospace industry.

South Africa — the most industrialized economy on the continent — spans the planet's most valuable lands, if energy resources are excluded, which are valued at some $2.4 billion, according to the WB.

Further north, the World Economic Forum predicts that Ghana will be the fastest growing economy in 2019 — and this boom relies on its lucrative gold deposits.

The dependence on mining, however, leaves these nations very exposed to cyclical fluctuations in demand and prices.

"The sector was hard hit by commodity market developments from 2008. However, there has been recovery to some extent at different times in respect of most minerals," Charmane Russell, spokesperson for the South African Mineral Council, told Efe.

"Many developing countries, including African ones, are significantly dependent on mining. Yet it does have the potential to give a 'kickstart' to economic development.

"South Africa is a good example of a country where mining was the foundation of our modern economy, especially insofar as there developed around it major supplier sectors, from forestry to steel to the financial sector and much else," Russell added.

REGULATING A SECTOR WITHOUT DETERRING INVESTORS

Despite the challenges, responsible extraction is key to the future of African mining, provided that countries are able to develop a stable legal framework that allows the redistribution of wealth and boosts development whilst remaining attractive to foreign investors.

"The issue is how do you make sure that the rewards are equitable between the investors, the country and the communities," Andrew Lane, leading consultant for Deloitte on Energy and Resources in Africa, said.

"When governments regulate is in attempt to balance that equation. And nobody has really got it right.

"I think there are many gaps in the system, because the mines pay their taxes but that money does not necessarily benefit citizens," Lane added.

The slow pace at which the sector has improved economies have led some countries, such as Tanzania, Zambia or the DRC, to hike up taxes and barriers on extraction activities, which puts investors on hold.

"It is a fine balance and some countries have a much better balance than others. We can say Ghana's policies are attracting more investment than chasing it away," mining analyst Peter Major, of the consulting firm Mergence Corporate Solutions, said.

In general, African regulatory frameworks tend to be unstable and this, together with problems such as the lack of adequate infrastructure, maintain the sector in a climate of uncertainty.

"The global majors are not prioritizing Africa at the moment but there is a lot of interest from China and India in African assets. It's a slightly different investment because its more around securing supplies for themselves in the future," Lane added.

Experts believe that it is a key moment for mining to contribute more to the development and well-being of Africans, but for this, governments have to refine their policies without adding excessive risk to the sector and without the benefits being lost to corruption.

At the same time, from the base, the struggle for reparation and respect for the rights of communities is an upward trend, especially in countries with proven judicial systems of independence such as South Africa or Kenya.

"Behind mines there's a trail of social disintegration," Johan Lorenzen, a human rights lawyer from the South African law firm Richard Spoor, told Efe.

"Once you have disrupted the communities' dynamics, to find a way to engage with the community it's not a straightforward thing, it takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of social science and expertise

"We should improve community-agency dialogue so you don't just start mining and pay people off along the way after making their lives intolerable," Lorenzen urged. EFE-EPA

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China's booming industry: From carbon to rare-earth metals

By Víctor Escribano

Beijing, Aug 13 (efe-epa).- Mining has positioned itself as a key element in the global trade war between Beijing and Washington, and with China becoming the world's primary provider of quotidian materials, such as carbon and steel, as well as less common ones like gold and rare-earth metals, the Asian giant's continued dominance now hinges on this industry.

In 2018, China's mining sector netted 4.56 trillion yuan ($660 billion), according to government data.

A good indicator of how this sector is booming is the fact that its total profit rocketed 40.1 percent last year, the highest growth rate among the sectors analyzed by the National Statistics Office (ONE).

The Asian nation remains the world's number one producer of coal (3.45 billion tons), crude steel (830 million tons in 2017) and gold (426.1 tons), and a set of ten non-ferruginous metals.

Within this last category, refined copper or aluminum obtained by electrolysis stand out.

A report published by the Ministry of Natural Resources reveals that, in 2017, China had large reserves of coal (1.67 trillion tons), oil (3.54 billion tons) and natural gas (5.52 trillion cubic meters).

There are also large reserves of ferruginous minerals and metals such as gold, tungsten or tin in the country.

As far as hydrocarbons are concerned, China is not only the world's leading energy producer but also its largest consumer.

According to the World Bank, in 2014, China imported just over 15 percent of the energy it consumed.

Regarding minerals, according to World Bank data from 2017, China imports much more ($132.8 billion) than it exports ($3.9 billion).

The main export destinations are Japan, South Korea and the United States, while imports come mainly from Australia, Brazil and Peru.

REGULATION AND RARE-EARTH METALS

The 1986 Mineral Resources Law, which was last updated in 2009, is a legislative cornerstone in this sector.

The law stipulates that the ownership of mineral resources should be managed by the state.

It also outlines that state-run companies should be the main pillars of the mining sector and that its development should be guaranteed by the state.

However, private and foreign enterprises can also exploit mineral resources using a licensing process which is, in most cases, handed out and managed by the central government.

Beijing does not accept direct foreign investment in some sectors and, for oil and gas extraction, foreign companies need to work with local partners to access the market.

Within mining, foreign companies are not allowed to engage in the prospecting and extraction of tungsten, tin, fluorite, radioactive minerals or rare-earth minerals.

The latter category of metals has become one of the key protagonists of the trade war between the US and China.

Rare-earth metals comprise 17 elements that are essential in the production of modern technology. China produces around 80 percent of the US' total tech imports and now Beijing is threatening to close the tap.

According to data from the US Government, China hosts 36.7 percent of the world's known rare-earth reserves and produced 70.6 percent of the global total last year.

In 2016, Beijing took steps to end illegal mining and improve the industry, and since then its production has declined. Some consultants claim that it has been halved.

LOOKING TO A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE

Materials whose known reserves increased the most between 2016 and 2017 were shale gas (62 percent), crystalline graphite (22.6 percent), manganese ore (19.1 percent) and silver (14.8 percent), according to official data.

Authorities consider that China's mining potential, excluding oil and gas, is gigantic and highlight the potential in the exploration of zinc, lead, manganese, lithium, gallium extracted from bauxite or indium.

However, the Ministry of Natural Resources says the trend has shifting priorities.

In 2017, oil and gas exploration expenses rose 10.8 percent year-on-year, while that of other materials fell 19.8 percent.

The technologies of the future, such as hydrogen-powered vehicles, will be key to drawing tomorrow's mining in China.

Deloitte, a multinational services network, says that for this reason the demand for materials like platinum, essential for fuel cells, will see an uptick.

The Chinese Government, aware that economic development has led to serious pollution problems, has approved a series of plans in this regard.

It boosted the concepts of "green exploration" and "green mining", although environmental organizations believe that mining, especially coal, still has "serious environmental impacts."

"There is no 'clean coal mining'," Greenpeace activist Gan Yiwei told Efe.

"Advanced technology can help reduce its environmental impact, it cannot eliminate it."

Another of the challenges that the Government must face is mine safety: according to the China Labor Bulletin, so far in 2019, 120 miners have died in 48 accidents. EFE-EPA

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Rare-earth metals and vandadium, crucial raw materials in modern mining

By Carlota G. Velloso

Madrid, Aug 12 (efe-epa).- Once largely forgotten, mining companies are increasingly starting to focus their attention on rare-earth metals, vandadium and lithium, all of which are crucial for modern technology and automotive sectors and increasingly important for the manufacturing of electric batteries and the storage of renewable energy.

"Ten or fifteen years ago they were worth zero, because they were not used at all," Francisco Bellón, the executive vice president of Berkeley Energia, a Spanish company, told Efe in an interview.

This situation has changed radically. In Spain, as with much of the rest of the world, there has been a spike in the number of requests for research permits for the metals that, until recently, had been largely overlooked.

That is not to suggest that their demand has eclipsed that for more "traditional" materials, which are still necessary in the technology world.

The list of strategic minerals is in a constant state of flux as technological developments inform new findings but for general director of the National Confederation of Mining and Metallurgy Businessmen (Confedem), Vicente Gutiérrez, the metals of the future are "those that are related with energy transition".

Thus, the price of vanadium — used in batteries — or the demand for lithium or cobalt grows exponentially.

The following list includes the strategic raw materials and their applications within the sector:

RARE-EARTH METALS: A group of seventeen metals from the periodic table — which includes yttrium, cerium or gadolinium — used for the manufacturing of cell phones or computers. Rare-earth metals are found in screens, microphones, cameras, storage or infrared memories, among other applications.

VANADIUM: Vanadium batteries are manufactured exclusively with this metal and are capable of yielding large amounts of energy while being charged, so they are used in both wind or solar generators and electric cars.

LITHIUM: A metal that is also used in rechargeable batteries and that is instrumental for the electric car industry.

COBALT: The lithium batteries in electric vehicles would not work without cobalt, making it essential for the automobile industry.

TANTALUM: Used in the capacitors that store and distribute energy, so the loading and unloading of devices such as mobiles or computers depend on tantalum.

NIOBIUM: Used for engines, rockets or combustion equipment due to its high resistance to heat.

INDIUM: Found on all types of screens because it is a conductive and transparent metal. It is also used together with germanium in engines and wind generators and is essential in photovoltaic energy.

ANTIMONY: Hardens lead in storage batteries. It also has flame retardant properties and is used for the creation of car and airplane furniture.

TUNGSTEN: Found in X-ray tubes, on televisions, in the filaments of cables, in the contacts of switches and electric current or in welding.

GERMANIUM: Found in fiber-optic networks, infrared technology, solar panels, CDs or DVDs and also in lasers because it allows a smaller and more accurate wavelength.

COPPER: Electric cars use copper, computers and wind turbines rely on this metal too because of its high capacity to store energy.

LEAD: Used in both electric batteries and heavy vehicle batteries. It is also used for medical equipment to protect from radiation in clinical analysis, in video reproduction or cable coverings.

GOLD: Mainly used in jewelry production but it is also a good conductor of electricity and is corrosion resistant and as such was put to other uses towards the end of the 20th century in computers, telecommunications equipment, aviation reactors and spacecraft.

ZINC: Used in galvanized and steel cladding or electronic devices such as computers.

IRON: In addition to its use in the steel industry and for alloys with other metals, such as steel, iron is used to make computers.

STRONTIUM: Present in the petrochemical sector, in the processes of oil and natural gas extraction, although it also appears in the manufacturing of magnets and the lighting industry.

TIN: Used in cladding or welding electrical circuits. EFE-EPA

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Trump's efforts to refuel US coal production falling short

By Alex Segura

Washington DC, Aug 15 (efe-epa).- US President Donald Trump's efforts to rescue the mining industry and its workers under the slogan "coal is back" are not producing the results desired by the White House.

Throughout the 2016 election campaign, Trump made a point of targeting and visiting states such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania all of which have historically been mining strongholds.

During these visits, Trump expressed his support for the mining sector against what he labeled the "coal war" of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

These states, together with Wyoming and Illinois, account for 70 percent of the country's coal production.

The president has appointed Andrew Wheeler, a well-known advocate for the coal industry, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an agency dedicated to preserving the environment, a move that has been widely criticized by environmentalists.

Under his mandate, EPA has announced a proposal for regulations that would facilitate the elimination of regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants, a new Trump measure that further dissolves Obama's environmental legacy designed to tackle the climate crisis and to reduce emissions.

Despite this aggressive rhetoric and the measures that have already come into force, data reveals a trend that seems irreversible: the use of coal in the US has continued to decline and is at its lowest level in more than 40 years.

According to recent figures from the Department of Energy, the use of coal in May fell to 687 million tons, the lowest figure since 1978. Production also dropped to its second lowest level since that year.

In the past eight years, according to the Sierra Club environmental organization, a total of 290 coal-fired power plants have closed in the country or announced their closure in the near future.

A large part of coal is used to produce electricity and, despite the clear decline in both production and demand, the Trump Administration earmarked $39 million in April to investigate the improvement of carbon plants' efficiency.

"Maximizing our domestic resources is key to maintaining American energy independence and ensuring both our energy and national security," Energy Secretary Rick Perry said at the time.

However, recent studies from Columbia University and the Brookings Institute show that the collapse of coal cities located in the states of Montana and Wyoming, among others, is getting imminent.

The new report analyzes 26 counties in ten different states classified as "dependent on coal mining" and concludes that these areas, already heavily affected by the coal decline, are not prepared for the impact of climate policies.

If the United States were to address the risks of climate change, the use of coal in the energy sector would decrease rapidly.

And despite the political drive to artificially prop up the coal sector it has suffered a steady decline for decades, both due to the growing demand for new energy sources and the rise of automation and more efficient mining practices.

Since 1950, the number of mining jobs has plummeted 88 percent.

There is also another battle that plagues the US mining industry, the dispute over the processing of rare-earth metals which are essential products for the production of technology products, from electric cars to military equipment.

The only operating rare earth metals mine in the US is the Mountain Pass, located in California, although it is closer to Las Vegas than to Los Angeles.

The US relies on China for approximately 80 percent of its supply of rare earth elements, according to the US Geological Survey, and these minerals have played a key role in the current trade war between Washington and Beijing.

Fully aware of this dependence, Chinese president Xi Jinping has the upper hand in this battle: namely if the US imposed higher tariffs on Chinese rare earths, the Asian giant would retaliate by limiting exports.

In order to mitigate the effects of this threat from China, Trump reached an agreement in mid-June with his Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, to develop a joint action plan to "ensure a reliable supply" of rare-earth minerals, although the full scope of this plan is unknown. EFE-EPA

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