David Jacobson was the U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2009-2013 and is vice chair, BMO Financial Group.
Nineteenth-century British statesman Lord Palmerston once said, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” It therefore follows that there is a natural rhythm to how and when nations choose to compete and when they choose to co-operate for the common good – even among long-time friends such as Canada and the United States.
With a new government elected in Canada, there is an opportunity to co-operate for the common good with the Biden administration on a number of key diplomatic and strategic initiatives with serious and long-term implications for both countries. The two countries, of course, already have a long and productive partnership on everything from defence to the economy, and today are making headway in crafting a continental approach to fighting climate change and improving labour standards.
The strong relationship between the two countries is even more important as we face a potential crisis on the horizon. It’s one that could put lives and livelihoods at risk and warrants the attention of both sides of the border: North America’s lack of the supply chain necessary for the extraction and refining of “critical minerals”. These are aluminum, copper, cobalt and lithium as well as lesser-known reserves such as niobium, praseodymium and other rare earth elements.
While most of us do not spend much of our days worrying about these minerals, they are of strategic importance to virtually every recent technological advance in clean energy, battery storage, electric vehicles, medicine, aerospace, defence and electronics. The smartphone on which you may be reading this depends on these minerals to function.
Unfortunately, most of these critical minerals are being produced and refined in only a handful of countries including Chile, Indonesia, China and DR of Congo, some of which do not share North American interests or even values. And it would not take much for one of those countries to decide to use its near monopoly position to cut off our supplies and do lasting damage to our economies and quality of life.
We’ve seen this story before. In the early 1970s, Saudi Arabia led the members of OPEC in an oil embargo that, according to analyst and author Daniel Yergin, “set off an upheaval in global politics and the world economy.” The oil shocks disrupted global markets and fundamentally challenged global economic security. The legacy of those events can be felt to this day.
If a minerals crisis occurred to similar effect as the oil crisis, every technology, job, business or sector that depends on a battery, a computer chip, or high-tech alloys would be at risk.
The good news is a solution exists, right beneath our feet. There are deposits of cobalt, nickel, lithium, graphite and many other critical minerals across North America, including in California, Nevada, Minnesota, Northern Ontario and Quebec. But we have not exercised the resolve to extract them or to develop the supply chain necessary to refine them here rather than ship raw materials overseas only to ship finished products back again.
It’s not just about securing the supply. Canada and the U.S. stand to see a huge benefit from these increasingly valuable resources while keeping the economic growth and job opportunities at home not just in mining and refining but, more importantly, in making all the products that rely on these critical minerals.
The first step to increased self-sufficiency in critical minerals is to recognize we have a problem that will take concentrated money and effort from both sides of the border to solve. A continental approach would require capital investments and political will. It would require increased exploration for critical minerals here at home. It would also require us to develop our own North American refining, processing and recycling capacities and to streamline permitting rules and regulations in ways that allow things to get built without sacrificing health, safety or broader environmental stewardship.
We are in a race against time, and we cannot always count on the competition to play fair. Americans and Canadians have historically pulled together for the good of both nations in times of challenge. Such times are coming. Let’s once again plan for, face and beat this new challenge by together establishing our place in the global supply chain.
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