Critical minerals is the buzzword on the lips of the mining industry, with a multitude of state and federal funding and initiatives underway to further drive Australia’s critical minerals strategy. Federal Minister for Resources, Madeleine King, spoke to Mining Magazine Editor, Rebecca Todesco, to discuss the Critical Minerals Strategy, and provide a snapshot on how the industry is shaping up in Australia.
With the Federal Government committed to acting on climate change and seizing the opportunities of the net zero transformation, Ms King said the government acknowledges that the country will not be able to meet net zero targets without the resources sector.
“The road to net zero runs through the Australian resources industry. Resources have been hugely important to our past and are even more important for our present and future.
“Critical minerals like lithium, vanadium, silicon and rare earths are the building blocks of clean energy technologies, such as batteries, solar panels and electric vehicles. Critical minerals are also essential inputs to technologies we take for granted everyday – and that help to power our homes, offices, factories and mobile phones.”
Ms King said that with demand for these minerals predicted to grow significantly over the next three decades, supply chains will be highly concentrated and it is crucial that Australia maintains a stable supply of critical minerals.
“We also know that critical minerals projects face complex challenges, including technical risks due to complex mineralogy and the need for specialised processing, as well as project risks associated with operating in remote areas, significant capital and energy requirements, and the fact many proponents are junior miners.”
Characteristics unique to Australia affect the country’s standing in the world’s critical mineral supply chains. “Australia is well positioned to cement itself as a global supplier of choice for processed critical minerals to meet rapidly growing global markets and to become a renewable energy superpower.
“Large critical minerals reserves, technical expertise and long track record as a reliable and responsible supplier of resources and energy mean we are well placed to be a globally significant producer of raw and processed critical minerals.
“Australia is the world’s largest producer of lithium, the third largest producer of cobalt and fourth largest producer of rare earths.
The country also produces significant amounts of metals such as aluminium, nickel and copper which, combined with critical minerals, are crucial for low-emissions technology such as electric vehicles, batteries, solar panels and wind turbines.
“Importantly, Australia’s mining industry operates to the highest ESG standards. The world demands that the extraction of resources is sustainable, and Australia meets that demand.”
Recent initiatives and funding across Australia have highlighted exploration as the first step to expanding Australia’s critical mineral offerings.
“We know that there is no net zero without resources, but there are no resources without exploration.
“Investment in Australian mineral exploration is at record highs, and the Australian Government is committed to ensuring that this success continues. Exploration is vital to the global transition to net zero, it is key to unlocking and accelerating resource development at the scale and pace necessary.”
Despite previous exploration success, 80 per cent of Australia remains under-explored – meaning there is huge potential for further resource investment to meet the growing domestic and global demand.
“Current government initiatives target the earliest stages of exploration where there is greater investment uncertainty, and greater financial risk for industry. This includes the government’s $225 million Exploring for the Future (EFTF) program which provides world-leading data on Australia’s mineral, energy and groundwater resource potential in unexplored and underexplored areas of the country; and the $200 million Junior Minerals Exploration Incentive which encourages investment in small minerals exploration companies undertaking greenfield exploration through investor tax credits.”
The Exploring for the Future (EFTF) program provides precompetitive geoscience data to encourage investment in a pipeline of new resource projects today and into the future.
“Geoscientific data is a fundamental building block for future investment in resource exploration and development for a range of minerals and resources, including critical minerals. This is important as it accelerates net zero technologies, and increases the attractiveness of Australia as an investment destination.”
Ms King said that through the program, 419 new tenements have been taken up by 50 companies, encompassing an area of more than 246,000 square kilometres.
“At its core, the value and success of EFTF is underpinned by strong collaborative efforts across local communities, industry, academia and all levels of government.”
Geoscience Australia has recently released its Atlas of Mine Waste, which is an interactive online mapping tool that provides governments, industry and the community with accurate information about Australian mine tailings, waste rock, smelter residues and related mine waste materials.
“This Atlas provides data of sites across the nation that may contain previously overlooked critical minerals – including those used to produce electric vehicles and solar panels which can be an enable for Australia to recycle its riches.”
Ms King said that Australia has a world-class record for pioneering and adopting efficient, lower carbon, higher sustainability, and environmentally responsible practices across its traditional and critical minerals industries.
“Australia has a robust legal system, strong governance and world-leading environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials.
“We are also working with global partners who are likewise committed to strengthening ESG practices in critical minerals mining and the broader supply chain.
“Critical minerals are essential to the technologies needed to decarbonise the global economy. In this context, the world will need more mining not less to reach its net zero targets.”
The Sustainable Critical Minerals Alliance
Recent geopolitical dynamics around the globe have contributed to stresses within critical minerals value chains, with many countries eager to find secure, reliable supplies of minerals and resources.
In 2022, at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15), Australia – alongside other countries like France, Germany, Canada, Japan, the UK, and the US – announced the launch of the Sustainable Critical Minerals Alliance.
The Canada-led initiative strives to promote sustainable, environmentally and socially responsible mining practices for the critical minerals sector.
Ms King said that the mining and processing of critical minerals is crucial to helping the world lower emissions, and it’s important that those minerals are developed to high ESG standards.
“The Australian Government is committed to ambitious action on climate change, making meaningful contributions to the lives of First Nations peoples and supporting the highest possible environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards for global resource extraction.”
Ms King pinpointed growing Australia’s critical minerals resources and industries to support new clean energy technologies and global emissions reduction targets as a key element of the Federal Government’s commitment.
“Critical minerals like lithium, silicon and rare earths are building blocks of clean energy technologies, such as batteries, solar panels and electric vehicles. Without these minerals, and the mines that produce them, the world cannot reach net zero by 2050.
“Sustainable and responsible progress towards net zero will only be possible if our extractive industries are underpinned by a commitment to the highest ESG standards,” Ms King said.
A key commitment of the Alliance is to support local and Indigenous communities, a view which Ms King said the government shares.
“First Nations engagement and benefit-sharing is one of six key focus areas identified in Australia’s National Critical Minerals Strategy.
“First Nations landholders and communities are key partners in all resources projects. Ongoing and genuine partnerships with First Nations Australians is essential to the future sustainability of a strong and responsible resources sector.”
Ms King said that more than 60 per cent of national resources projects operate on land covered by a Native Title claim or determination.
“By treating First Nations’ communities with respect and ensuring they gain maximum benefit from resources projects, the sector will in turn be supported by them. More than a quarter of a million people work in the resources sector and First Nations people make up a greater share of this workforce than any other sector.
“Stronger engagement practices and partnerships with First Nations peoples will benefit the critical minerals sector’s immediate and long-term social licence to operate, its ongoing sustainability, and Australia’s ability to leverage its ESG credentials world-wide.”
Ms King said the Federal Government’s resources policies are developed in close consultation with First Nations people.
“The Critical Minerals Strategy for example was developed following consultation with First Nations representatives and in line with the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to ensure that the economic opportunities associated with a growing critical minerals sector are shared with First Nations Peoples.”
Another key focus of the Alliance is adopting circular economy approaches, which Ms King said offers Australia the opportunity to capitalise upon the full life cycle value of its resources.
“The Australian Government understands the potential of a circular economy to achieve positive outcomes, and as the Minister for Resources, I am particularly aware of the opportunities the mining sector has to redesign the production and consumption of renewable energy enablers such as lithium, copper, cobalt, nickel and silver.”
Building strong international relationships
Australia has been working to forge strong relationships with other countries in the resources space, including the recent AUKUS trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK, and the US, and the signing of a joint commitments with both Germany and the UK.
“The Joint Statement of Intent between Australia and the United Kingdom will see the two nations collaborate on shared commitments to promote diverse, resilient and sustainable supply chains which will underpin key technologies – including those that the world needs to decarbonise,” Ms King said.
“The Joint Declaration of Intent with Germany similarly focuses on developing diverse, resilient and sustainable supply chains, and is the basis to undertake research on critical minerals value chains to further both nations respective climate, energy and strategic ambitions.”
Ms King said Australia, as a global leader in the production of raw and, increasingly, processed critical minerals and refined products, has a lot to offer other countries.
“Australia has world-class expertise at extracting minerals and a track record as a reliable producer and exporter of energy and resources.”
With Australia expecting to continue to see growth in demand for its significant critical mineral resources, Ms King said it will continue to work with like-minded partners to further aims of achieving net zero, energy security and creating safe and secure supply chains.
“Last October, I signed a new Australia-Japan Critical Minerals Partnership to establish a framework for building secure critical mineral supply chains between Australia and Japan.
“Other bilateral agreements like the Australian-India Critical Minerals Investment Partnership will give our companies greater certainty.”
Ms King said the Federal Government is also working with the Biden administration in Washington DC to ensure Australia can make the most of opportunities offered by the Inflation Reduction Act.
“This includes the recently-announced Australia-United States Taskforce on Critical Minerals, which I will lead alongside counterparts in the US National Security Council, under the Climate, Critical Minerals and Clean Energy Transformation Compact.
“Furthermore, in the 2023-24 budget, the government announced a $57.1 million Critical Minerals International Partnerships Program aimed at securing strategic and commercial partnerships to develop new, diverse, and resilient supply chains underpinned by critical minerals processed in Australia.
“Included in this funding is a $40 million grant program, leveraging co-investment between Australia and like-minded partners to support projects that can develop end-to-end supply chains.”
The new critical minerals strategy
When asked to single out one of her biggest achievements as Federal Minister for Resources so far, Ms King referred to the recent Critical Minerals Strategy, released in June 2023, and said it is a significant step in Australia’s ambitions to become a renewable energy superpower.
“The strategy sets out a vision to grow our critical minerals wealth, create Australian jobs in mining and manufacturing, strengthen global clean energy supply chains, and support the world to achieve net zero emissions.
“The strategy is aimed at making Australia a globally significant producer of raw and processed critical minerals and boosting economic opportunities for all Australians, including First Nations people and regional communities.”
The strategy will also see $500 million of new investment for critical minerals projects, via the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.
Ms King said the strategy builds on the Federal Government’s wider suite of policies to support the sector, including finance through the Critical Minerals Facility and National Reconstruction Fund, investments in research and development, and grants to help develop early- to mid-stage critical minerals projects.
“As Federal Resources Minister, my priority is to work with industry to ensure Australia maintains its position as a world leader in resource production so that the sector can continue to support our economy and create jobs and wealth for all Australians.
“A strong Australian resources industry is not only important for our nation, but for the region. Australian minerals and energy build and fuel countries across the region and beyond.
“We know that Australia’s critical minerals are key to the world’s fight to reduce global warming. The world can’t build the batteries, wind farms and solar panels it needs without Australian resources.”