LES ANNALES DES MINES
Responsabilité & Environnement n° 58 April 2010
FOR OUR ENGLISH-SPEAKING READERS
Fairness and efficiency in the use of
Do we have the right to rapidly deplete conventional petroleum reserves at less than $20/barrel? Or should we leave oil for future generations? To what extent should we preserve the soil and old-growth forests? What should be the scope of the efforts to be undertaken immediately for lessening climate change? A preliminary to any economic analysis of these questions is the choice of norms for inter- and intra-generational fairness, a choice that can only come out of a political process.
The only sure thing
for 2010: Instability
Compared with their very low levels in early 2009, the prices of several products doubled during that year and neared, once again, the heights reached in the spring of 2008. From the supply side, 2009 is characterized by producers’ efforts to adjust their exportations. But all of that would not have sufficed, save for China, its economic recovery and need for imports.
The prospects for the world’s petroleum
When analyzing petroleum resources, we should look not just under but also above the ground. The industrially installed production capacity is a bottleneck that, like a valve, controls the annual flow from oil reserves. We predict, therefore, a plateau rather than a peak in the coming decade.
The Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC), some political leaders and financiers have mainly attributed the price spike of oil in 2008 — followed by a just as spectacular drop in prices — to the speculative moves made by financial investors on the futures market instead of to market fundamentals.
Similar to the trend observed over the last thirty years, the production of electricity will likely account for much of the growth in natural gas consumption worldwide, regardless of the region. However transportation, storage and distribution make up, on the average, 70% of the total costs of producing gas.
Since early in the first decade of this new century, coal, though heavily criticized for environmental reasons, has come back strong. World consumption increased 48% between 2000 and 2008. Coal now makes up 27% of world energy and 41% of the energy used to generate electricity. We believed that coal was doomed to vanish because it was deemed to be an obsolete source of energy associated with the industrial revolution. For this reason, this robust, current growth might come as a surprise.
Since 1990, the quantity of ore mined annually only represents 50%-60% of the total consumption of uranium by nuclear reactors. The remainder comes from “secondary resources”, i.e., previously mined uranium that has been held in storage or already been used but reprocessed for reuse. However the surplus of these resources available for sale has almost been reabsorbed.
The current production chain of the first generation of biofuels has quite real limits. To overcome them, efforts are being made to develop processes for converting vegetable resources of little worth into fuel. This research focuses both on these resources and on the technology and processes for turning them into fuel.
Research in agronomics is pursing several approaches in order to escape from Malthusian constraints. The best-known approach is the quest for a solution by improving seeds through a transfer of genes. Another is to focus on intensively using ecological processes in ecosystems while supplementing them with conventional techniques under condition that the whole solution be environmentally coherent.
More than 265 million Africans are hungry, even though the continent to the south of the Sahara potentially represents one of the planet’s major reserves of farmlands. But the production of foodstuffs in Africa runs too many risks to attract private investors. Priority must be given to a “probusiness” approach to developing this sector that is not satisfied with eliminating trade barriers and opening the economy. It would seek to improve the profitability of existing establishments.
A major strategic challenge will be to ensure the supply of mineral resources for nine billion human beings in 2050. The mining industry worldwide must cope with an ever growing number of strategic issues and risks, in particular the rising costs of investments and mining operations.
In late 2008, the European Commission adopted “The raw materials initiative: Meeting our critical needs for growth and jobs in Europe”, COM(2008) 699. This strategic communication proposes a coherent global approach for dealing with the challenges arising in the field of industrial raw materials.
Are mineral and hydrocarbon resources an asset for developing countries, in particular those lying to the south of the Sahara? This question has been hotly debated for more than fifteen years. This article examines how mineral resources can have positive effects on the development of countries in Africa south of the Sahara.
The two major springs for the lithium market’s midterm growth are batteries for embedded systems and electric vehicles. Newspapers have predicted the coming of a “lithium Middle East” in the Altiplano area of the Andes between Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.
Given the inescapable need for rare earths in several applications, an issue in the near future is to develop deposits of these metals outside China in order to meet worldwide needs and secure the supply indispensable for industry.