Rocks Reads Roundup 11/28

Gritty, MP, Finland, Crystal X. Boring

Hello rocks readers! Some of this material is a little older because I didn’t send out a links roundup last week. Enjoy!

Lighthearted Gritty Crystals Content

This is just fun stuff with rocks I just thought you might like.

MP Materials going public updates

Remember two weeks ago when I wasn't sure whether MP Materials (the company that owns the Mountain Pass mine) was going public through a weird financial shenanigan backed kind of by SoftBank, but it seemed likely? It happened. MP Materials took over/"merged" with the Fortress-backed shell company's listing on the NYSE on November 18, you can track its stock now if you feel like it (I kind of don't have the headspace to be that attentive to stonks, honestly, but I guess some people like that).

The day before MP went public, news broke that the company would be receiving $9.6 million from the Department of Defense to support "value-add processing and separation capabilities to the Mountain Pass operations." As I think I've mentioned before here, the big challenge for domestic rare earth supply chains isn't really ore (insert pedantic "rare earths aren't rare" sound here); it's processing ore into industry-ready refined metals. MP currently exports most of its rare earths to China for processing.

A lot of the coverage of MP's NYSE debut unsurprisingly bought into the "plucky mine taking on Big China" narrative; honestly I think it's sort of anticlimactic? It does mean MP has to disclose more things publicly for the SEC which means we get a little more insight into the company's activities than before.

Other REE projects that got DoD money

The $9.6 million the DoD is giving to MP Materials was one of three REE-related DoD funding projects announced on November 17. All were issued under Title III of the Defense Production Act (we're still allegedly in a "national emergency" with minerals, remember?) and were relatively small–MP's was biggest, followed by $2.3 million to California's TDA Magnetics and $860,000 (I don' know why the press release phrased it as "$.86 million"?) to Texas' Urban Mining Company (the recycling firm mentioned in this newsletter a while back). TDA Magnetics seems to just be a manufacturer so that might be more like a stockpiling thing? Unclear.

Making the informal (cobalt mining in DRC), formal

(Above is a dumb deep cut joke from me, sorry)

The state-backed Congolese mining company Gécamines moved closer to making Entreprise Generale du Cobalt (EGC)–their initiative to further formalize artisanal cobalt mining by creatting a dedicated buyer and market specifically for artisanal miners–into a real, functional thing this week with the announcement of a trading agreement and partnership with commodities trading company Trafigura.

Artisanal mining–the practice of small-scale mining by individuals or small groups, typically with hand tools, absent safety precautions–has been at the heart of public outcry over labor exploitation in mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Up to a fifth of the cobalt mined in the country is thought to come from artisanal mines, and once stuff goes to smelters it's really hard to differentiate or track which cobalt came from where.

Initially a number of (western-backed) efforts to address the harmful qualities of artisanal mining in DRC related to basically getting it out of the supply chain–putting greater scrutiny on sourcing and auditing mines, stuff like that. But in the absence of any other professional development resources, all those out of work artisanal miners were essentially fucked–and most kept doing it.

(For a slightly more in-depth overview of artisanal mining in DRC this Washington Post op-ed is pretty good.)

This is to say that the shift–from industry, NGOs, and government–to construct more formal channels and eventually regulations to make artisanal mining maybe more accountable is kind of a step in a better direction. But it's still extremely messy. Gécamines is notoriously corrupt, and making a market for cobalt isn't the same thing as organizing a sector or guaranteeing health and safety for a generally-contingent class of workers. Trafigura getting involved in the project seems to be seen as a good sign–it means that the EGC isn't exclusively an arm of the state, there's more money coming into it, and Trafigura's support specifically focuses on what creating a formalizing artisanal mining sector could look like. The company was involved in a small pilot program working on exactly this issue in 2018.

That being said, in some of the other sectors they've worked in Trafigura has had its fair share of scandals and a lot of the corruption in DRC hinges on uh, multinational mining companies doing bribes and stuff. It would be cool if Trafigura was totally on the up-and-up here and this could actually support Congolese miners? I need to spend more time diving into the pilot project and the plans for EGC.

Finland has hella minerals, folks

Turns out Greenland isn't the only country pursuing a major metals play. The Finnish government created the Finnish Minerals Group in 2018 through a restructuring of the country's state-owned mine holdings. Its mandate is to "maximise the value of Finnish minerals" with a specific focus on developing "the Finnish value chain of lithium-ion batteries." Finland's geology apparently holds solid deposits of basically all the key metals used in lithium batteries–they were already Europe's top nickel producer prior to this new initiative. Most of the actual mining happening right now is being done by Terrafame, a firm partially funded by the state and partially by (surprise!) Trafigura. It sounds like they're focused on nickel right now with cobalt and lithium exploration underway.Terrafame also received approval to mine and refine uranium in Finland earlier this year.

It doesn't sound like Terrafame's mining directly affects Finland's indigenous Samí people, but other deposits in and around Samí territory are apparently being sized up by multinational mining firms. It's interesting that of all the critiques of expanding mining in Finland brought up in this article, the Samí aren't really mentioned.

The Pebble Mine isn't happening

Honestly, don't have much to add here. Disappointed that this update doesn't include the Army press relations officer name checked in this newsletter's first mention of the Pebble Mine, the incredibly named Crystal X. Boring, but still very good news. (Side note: of course I googled Crystal X. Boring and she seems...pretty wholesome? Like in addition to doing media relations work for the Army she's also getting a PhD in psychology focused on working with people with PTSD? So yes, with that name and that LinkedIn vibe I still believe she could very likely low-key also have superpowers.)