The Oxford Martin Programme on

Rethinking Natural Resources

Reframing Metal Mining for a Sustainable Energy Transition (ReSET)

The Challenge

The world’s volcanoes emit as much copper, lithium, gold and many other so-called critical metals in their volcanic plumes as is mined every day around the world.

Critical metals are essential for the Net Zero energy transition, from the manufacture of batteries and electric vehicles, to the generation and transmission of renewable electricity. Meeting the anticipated demand for critical metals in a secure and sustainable fashion is a challenge of global proportions - not only finding new metal deposits and developing methods for sustainable extraction, but also in rethinking the social-justice and environmental impacts of extractive industries.

Geofluids associated with volcanoes offer a potential solution to the critical metals challenge. Volcanic plumes are just one, rather inaccessible, example of geofluids. Even greater quantities of hot, saline geofluids occur underground in reservoirs a few kilometres beneath dormant volcanoes. Recovering the minerals dissolved in these geofluids, at the same time as generating geothermal power from their heat, has the potential to both dramatically shift the economic viability of geothermal as a renewable energy source and to deliver a significant portion of the critical metals needed for the energy transition.

In Montserrat, and another twelve volcanic island countries in the Eastern Caribbean, geothermal potential is sufficient to meet almost all energy needs at a fraction of the cost of fossil fuels, the current source of almost all electricity in the region. In April 2023, the Montserrat government voted to licence a new geothermal power plant. The programme will work with the Governor and Premier of Montserrat, the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), and the people and communities of Montserrat to co-create a resilient regulatory, economic, and practical system to make the most of Montserrat’s potential as a source of critical minerals within the context of the island’s complex historical and cultural setting. This is a case study project designed to inspire a reset in the relationship between Net Zero and the extractive industries.

The Rethinking Natural Resources programme – also known as Reframing Metal Mining for a Sustainable Energy Transition (ReSET) – will bring together researchers from Earth Sciences, Economics, the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, the Department of Chemistry, and the Faculties of History and Law. It will aim to deliver results in-line with the Natural Resource Governance Institute’s Natural Resources Charter and consider the interconnected issues across the broad themes of Resources, Rights, Risks and Resilience.