You might read headlines and articles that say we will run out of a particular mined resource (Minerals, Metals, Fossil Fuels etc.) within the next few decades.
But, the current reserves or resources we are told that exist, are not necessarily an accurate indicator of the total resources that are available to us in the long term future.
In this guide we outline a few of the reasons why.
Summary – Why We Might Not Run Out Of Mined Resources
Some of the main factors to consider when figuring out why we may not run out of mined resources are ….
There’s a difference between Reserves vs resources vs actual supply
There’s recycling, secondary sources, and other methods to extend or increase supply
There’s the presence of alternate and substitute materials so original materials don’t have to be mined
New mining and extraction technology could be developed that makes currently unrecoverable reserves recoverable at a feasible economic cost
There’s a difference between ore quality vs the type of ore production factories built. Quality isn’t as important when you build the right factories to process ores
We often see increases in the proven reserves of some resources as more exploration and testing is done – zinc, tin, copper, iron ore and lead are examples of resources that have experienced increases since the year 2000 in the US.
Nickel and cobalt are two more examples of resources we may have a significant supply of that we are often told on the contrary that these resources may be starting to become scarce
What we have seen for the commodities tracked by the USGS is that none of the 90+ commodities have experienced an irreversible decline – they all go up and down over time
But, overall, it’s still wise to try to use mined resources in a sustainable way and pay attention to how much of a supply we still have left
A good sign that a particular resource may be beginning to decrease in supply is a rising price – which indicates that either extraction/mining is becoming more costly, or supply is shrinking to the point that current demand is pushing prices up.
Why We Might Not Run Out Of Resources Like Metals, Minerals & Other Mined Resources Anytime Soon
There’s a few reasons:
1. Ore Quality vs Type Of Ore Production Factories Built
Some people say there isn’t enough quality ore available.
But, ore quality is not as important as the type of factories you build to produce a form of a particular ore (like the different forms of nickel you can produce from different factories for example).
So, type of ore factories that are built and that will be built in the future matter as much as ore quality.
2. Reserves vs Resources vs Actual Supply That Exists In Reality
Reserves are different to resources, which are different to the actual supply that exists in reality.
Reserves are what is tested/proven (it costs millions, tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars, and also time, to do qualification, testing and explore and prove new reserves of ores and different resources), and what is economically available i.e. makes economic sense to mine.
Resources are the additional estimates we think are out there based on geologic information, principles and other projections – but we haven’t tested, proven or explored yet (usually due to time, money and practicality constraints).
And then there are undiscovered resources that exist in reality that we haven’t even taken into consideration yet (which may significantly add the the current reserves).
Usually, when you hear we are running out of a particular resource – it’s based on the reserve amount, and not the resource amount or actual supply amount that exists out there in reality.
Proven reserves for the major fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, and coal – have all trended upwards over the last few decades.
3. Recycling, Secondary Sources, & Other Methods To Extend Or Increase Supply
People usually don’t take into account metal recycling (or at least improving recycling techniques to make them more efficient or better at recovering resources), secondary sources of resources and other methods to increase or extend supplies (of which there are more or less methods depending on the resource – uranium is an example of a resource which has methods to extend usage and supply).
These are only some reasons, but there can be others.
You also have to consider that alternate/substitute metals, minerals and resources exist to replace the components we use in things like phones, computers and other technology.
So, there are options if a tested reserve starts running low (although things like performance can be reduced).
Substitutes are discussed in the USGS mineral commodity summary at https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/mcs/2018/mcs2018.pdf
An example of a mineral being replaced with a substitute is Cryolite being replaced:
… cryolite’s use as a flux has largely been supplanted by synthetic sodium aluminium fluoride, produced from the common mineral fluorite
A further discussion on scarcity of metals and minerals:
[whether a metal or mineral will run out is the wrong question]
[we can’t ever prove how much of a certain metal or mineral is left unless we physically explore every piece of soil in the earth – on land and in the ocean]
[something you have to consider is that as metals and minerals become harder to economically to mine for a profit – supply prices increase]
[a supply price increase past a certain point means we have to find substitute resources or design and manufacture products a different way to use different resources]
[the market always adapts to how economically available a metal or mineral is to extract and produce]
[scarcity … becomes a question of availability than of actual physical reserves, and that availability can be influenced by a variety of forces]
[a lack of substitute resources for a particular metal and it’s use could be a problem in the future … of the 62 metals that exist … twelve of those metals have no substitute at all for their major uses, and none of the 62 have a substitute available to cover all of their uses … and, decrease in performance is a concern for substitutes]
[Overall, efficiently using metals, designing and manufacturing products more efficiently and with sustainable use of metals in mind, and recycling metals from products with metal in them – can all help with the sustainable use of metal resources]
[Metals and minerals may never run out – but, they may become out of reach/economically not viable to extract and produce]
Examples Of Resources We Are Told We May Be Running Out Of Soon, But Might Be Nowhere Near Depletion In Reality
We are sometimes told nickel and cobalt will run out within the next half century based on current production rates and consumption rates.
But, based on taking into consideration some of the above reasons, Tim Worstall presents a different estimate:
[we have about] 800,000 years of nickel left (assuming no recycling) and 34 million of cobalt.
You can read more about Tim’s views and information on mineral supplies at https://fee.org/articles/no-were-not-running-out-of-minerals/
Another few examples are:
In 1950, the USGS estimated global reserves of zinc at 77 million tonnes (Mt).
In 2000, the US Government announced reserves were up to 209Mt [because of new testing and exploration].
Tin, copper, iron ore and lead have all experienced similar increases.
You can read more at https://www.mining-technology.com/features/featuremined-into-extinction-is-the-world-running-out-of-critical-minerals-5776166/
Does All This Mean We Will Actually Never Run Out Of Mined Resources?
But, it does halt the cause for panic that some headlines and claims of scarcity create by adding some perspective and context to these claims.
For some commodities there are long-term trends of increasing or decreasing use but the phrase ‘terminal decline’ suggests an irreversible change that ends in zero use − this has not happened for any of the 90+ commodities tracked by the USGS
… the production or consumption of a particular commodity may go up or go down, but in no case has the world run out of minerals
Having said that – it’s still best practice to use resources as sustainably and efficiently as we can, recycle where we can and recover resources where it makes sustainable sense to, as well as having other options (like substitutes), and keeping on developing beneficial technology and science (plus making product design more friendly to re-use and recycle metals and minerals) should we actually face any real supply issues with any resources in the future.
Factors That Can Impact The Supply Of Mined Resources