Looking for Imagination in Energy Policy (Part 4) - Imagination beats Speculation

[Author's collection]

Critical Minerals: A 360-degree perspective beats speculation

What happens if you don’t see clearly the connections between things and fail to connect the dots to reality?

If you’re a mapmaker, the result can be unintended errors of leading unsuspecting mariners into danger and possible death. If you don’t know what lies out there, should you just leave the map blank – or draw something in on speculation alone?

If you’re a climate and energy policymaker, you create supply chaos and dashed expectations, having touted an outcome without taking into account geo-political and international reality. At best, it’s laughable naiveté; at worst, it’s conning your fellow citizens through false advertising. 

Take this 1754 map by a German geographer, Gerhard Müller, working at the Russian Imperial Academy in the mid-1700s. The London mapmaker Robert Sayer translated and published it in 1775 as The Russian Discoveries of the Map Published by the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg (see above).

Müller wanted to set the record straight about the new discoveries made by Russian explorations in the Northeast Asian region – and across the Sea of Kamchatka, the Straits of Anian (Bering Strait), and Alaska and the Aleutian Islands (as they were later identified).

Müller used information from the Bering voyages and other accounts by Russian mariners – information that was sketchy at best, particularly regarding the Northwest coast of America, its shape, size and geographic orientation.

He was certain that Bering (who died on the return leg of his journey) had reached the coast of America. And he knew from the expedition reports that there were islands in-between, one of which might be “Alaschka”. So how to draw this cartographically?

What Müller came up with in his influential 1754 map of the region was a large turtle-headed peninsula connected to the North American continent. It’s hard to see how any of this relates to our modern view of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands and their location.

For two decades or so thereafter – until the third voyage of Captain James Cook in the late 1770s – the turtle-headed depiction remained in vogue and copied by other cartographers. One can only imagine the frustration of any sailor or navigator trying to find their way through the North Pacific on the basis of maps such as this. (Cook had a copy of the Müller map with him as he surveyed the “real” coast.)

Yet Müller had a redeeming side to his speculation. He drew the shape with dotted lines, a device used by cartographers of the period to show that they weren’t sure at all about what they were putting on the map. He later warned against placing too much trust in the accuracy of his map: “My work herein has been no more than to connect together, according to probability, by points, the coast that had been seen in various places.”

Honest about it, at least. But that didn’t stop people from taking his map as an accurate reflection of reality. Much to their later chagrin.   

The trouble was that Müller speculated on the basis of what little information was available -- and people took it for reality.

Could the same thing happen today in our climate and energy policies? Could we essentially be speculating about a desired policy outcome, while lacking the imagination to see its weaknesses and impracticability? Or an alternative?

There’s been an example recently of a “seizing of imagination”. Although this pertains to Canada's critical minerals and metals policy, there is a fundamental interconnection between industry, climate, and energy. And a lesson to be learned.

Driven by influential renewable advocates, the Canadian government has been consumed of late by “critical minerals” – especially those needed in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).

Enabling growth in EV use in Canada has become a leading ingredient in the government’s climate change and industry policies. Having EVs means fewer carbon emissions, therefore it's good for the climate. Mining the minerals and producing the batteries for EVs means “climate leadership” (virtuous) plus countless (because nobody knows) green jobs.

However, they forgot one thing. As Brendan Marshall points out in his splendid CGAI policy brief, Canada has all the predominant EV battery minerals. However: “Possessing battery minerals and metals does not equate to having value-added battery-grade materials.” Building Supply Chain Resiliency of Critical Minerals - Canadian Global Affairs Institute (cgai.ca)

So who does? Well, China, which owns roughly 70% of global battery-grade material manufacturing capacity, therefore “making Canada (and much of the rest of the world) reliant on that country for these materials”.

There’s an analogy here with solar panels. Many people are keen on solar panels (myself included). However, one has to ask: where are the components obtained? Who benefits economically from the solar panel market? Where is the value-added produced? Certainly not here in Canada.

Lobbyists appear to have sold the government on the vision of Canada leading the world in EV manufacture because we have deposits of the requisite minerals and metals. But that is speculation, not fact. As Marshall points out, Canada faces a considerable supply chain risk with EV battery minerals and components. 

In short: the vision does not accord with the reality of EV battery production. A little geo-political and mineral processing imagination would have seen this risk in advance.

It's not all doom and gloom, however. Marshall  notes that large percentages of Canadian nickel and cobalt (which make up 60-80% of the material in current EV battery designs) are mined at diesel-reliant off-grid mines.

But here’s the rub. Canadian climate change policy is directed against diesel-fuelled energy production. However, Canada’s advantage in having EV-battery minerals is jeopardized if mining operations are using diesel. 

Given that most of new critical mineral deposits are located in off-grid regions, there is a contradiction – the minerals needed by EVs to reduce fossil fuel use are produced by mines using fossil fuels.

Unless, of course, there would be an alternative. To find it, imagination must replace speculation.

Imagine a small nuclear battery powering off-grid mining operations. Wouldn’t this source of emissions-free power help produce cleanly the critical minerals needed by our climate policy? Wouldn’t an energy policy supporting such small reactors align very nicely with the government’s industry and climate goals?

As Marshall says: “One of the greatest climate actions Canada can take in support of Paris Accord objectives is to maximize domestic production of low-carbon metals and materials needed to meet projected clean technology demand.”

All true. Especially if the domestic production is powered with clean heat and electricity, no matter where such operations may be located.   

Nuclear technology can help here. But only if one’s feet are planted on reality and imagination replaces speculation.

If not, our critical minerals policies will stay turtle-headed.