‘Nowhere in the world is as important as WA in this space’

If anybody needed an additional reminder of WA’s place in the new energy and battery materials pecking order, then it came this week.

Purple 10 Oct 2019
3 mins
WA's abundance of battery materials is a great opportunity for the future.

If anybody needed an additional reminder of WA’s place in the new energy and battery materials pecking order – then it came in the form of the recent Critical Materials: Securing Indo-Pacific Technology Futures conference in Perth.

A range of well-credentialled speakers, from WA Governor Kim Beazley AC, to the state’s Mines and Petroleum Minister Bill Johnston and Federal Finance Minister Mathias Corman, highlighted WA’s genuine competitive advantage due to its comparatively abundant supply of critical materials.

As was pointed out, all of the heavy and light rare earths that will make up the components of our future batteries can be found in WA. Some 3000 pieces of new defence technology can’t work without these rare earths.

Northern Minerals Browns Range site in WA’s north is the world’s only producer of heavy rare earths outside of China.

Meanwhile, Talison’s Greenbushes project south-west of Perth features the highest-grade lithium deposit in the world. As of yesterday’s expansion launch of a second chemical grade processing plant, the project accounts for 27 per cent of the world’s lithium supply

Fittingly, WA was chosen earlier this year as the home for the $135 million national Future Batteries Industries Cooperative Research Centre.

And the importance of batteries to our modern day lives was reinforced on Wednesday night, when the scientific pioneers of the lithium-ion batteries were awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry.

But as much as WA has exciting opportunities in and around critical materials and batteries, there is also a need for strong strategic thinking to make best use of our natural advantages and negotiate potential hurdles.

The challenges include:

  • Thinking not just economically but in terms of national security. Rebecca Brown, Director General of WA’s Department of Jobs, Industry and Innovation, noted the need for both government and industry to back downstream processing ambitions and secure long-term offtakes.
  • Improving our approach to R&D. Investing in R&D helps ensure WA is competitive on a global scale, but access to R&D remains a source of industry frustration, as well as the ability to secure funding and delays in environmental approvals. As an article this week in the Australian Financial Review flagged, there is a case to be made for taxpayers subsidising the rare earths industry.
  • Considering how the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and research and development incentives may provide ways for the Federal Government to be involved in the space. The findings of the Prime Minister’s critical minerals taskforce will be eagerly awaited, along with a deregulation review into environmental approvals led by Tangney MP Ben Morton.
  • Exploring the potential for a public policy response from government with regards to a trade policy on critical minerals – an opportunity flagged by academics at this week’s conference. A strategic export plan was discussed, with greater investment in freight and ports to support this. The City of Kwinana was noted as a strong ally for industry.
  • Resolving frustration in the private sector around securing financing for projects, an ongoing situation which Mr Cormann said the Federal Government was trying to resolve.

Despite some of these challenges, passion and positivity were in strong supply on Tuesday, as speakers from the US, China, Japan, Indonesia and India presented their viewpoints on the sector. It was evident there is no agreed list of critical minerals globally – due to significant variations geographically – but it was clear there is a strong reliance on the free trade market.

Generally speaking, the overall mood of the conference was buoyant, with anticipation of a boost in the critical materials space as countries and business seek to secure more certain supply.

Partnerships were a recurring theme of the day, emphasising the benefits of working together and sharing information.

It’s exciting to think that much of that collaboration will happen right here in WA – which, as Minister Johnston was keen to point out, is very much the place to be.

Jennifer Kirk is an Associate Director in Purple’s Government Relations team and spent more than seven years working for the Commonwealth government, including leading stakeholder and regional engagement on important economy policy reform during her time in the Treasury Perth office. Contact Jennifer.

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