Xi Jinping, president, People's Republic of China
China's push for green energy continued unabated in 2021, driving hopes for continued booming lithium demand from its huge EV sector.
But the effects of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping's anti-pollution policies, which are driven as much by local complaints about air and water quality as they are by concerns about global warming, extend far beyond the EV sector.
Widespread electricity shortages in China were triggered by coal shortages, as China attempted to limit air pollution, as well as put geopolitical pressure on Australia with an unofficial ban on imports. These shortages had knock on effects across the supply chain, hitting Chinese metals production, with aluminium, magnesium, and manganese production badly hit.
And perhaps the most consequential of Xi's actions will be his interventions on the Chinese property market, which for decades has been unsung engine of the global economy, driving demand for steel and other metals, ceramics, glass, and other key mined products.
Concerns have grown that the bloated and heavily indebted sector is a bubble waiting to burst. Xi has been taking steps to deflate this bubble with property taxes and limits on risky borrowing. But such moves risk triggering the very crash they are meant to forestall.
And Xi Jinping has been sitting on his hands as the massive Chinese developer Evergrande undergoes a slow-motion collapse. The company appears to have finally defaulted on its loans, in a move will send ripples through the construction sector, and from there across the global commodity markets.
- Andrew Forrest, non-executive chairman, Fortescue Metals Group
The former CEO of iron ore producer Fortescue Metals Group has transformed himself into mining's poster boy for climate change. The last few months have been particularly busy for Twiggy and his green energy offshoot Fortescue Future Industries (FFI), culminating in a multibillion-dollar hydrogen supply deal and an encounter with US president Joe Biden - both of which took place at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
FMG is already leading the way on curbing emissions and plans to decarbonise its operations entirely by 2030, setting the standard for major mining companies to follow. But it is Forrest's plans to spend hundreds of billions on developing hydrogen projects that have generated column inches beyond the trade press.
While the ESG crew are predictably delighted, not everyone is convinced. Morgans analyst Adrian Prendergast has pointed to FMG's shift from its core business of iron ore towards renewables as a primary concern, while Miningnews.net's Dryblower column recently compared Forrest to Gough Whitlam, the former Aussie prime minister who nearly bankrupted the country.
But whether or not Australia's second-richest man succeeds in his lofty ambitions, his position as the world's highest-profile mining magnate seems unlikely to be diminished any time soon.
- Robert Friedland, founder and executive co-chairman, Ivanhoe Mines
While mining's other main ambassador, Mark Bristow, has slipped down the list as gold battles for investor attention, Friedland has only become more relevant over the past 12 months.
Having promised the world in the shape of his giant Kamoa Kakula copper project in the DRC, the charismatic billionaire has begun to deliver ahead of schedule, with Ivanhoe Mines reporting its first full quarter of production from the property late November.
Friedland's success in the DRC has rippled through the industry and prompted major mining companies to re-consider their appetite for jurisdictional risk. Even typically risk-averse BHP has reportedly been in discussions with Ivanhoe regarding an exploration project near Kamoa.
As a relentless promoter of copper, he has ramped up his rhetoric regarding the importance of the red metal this year, describing it in April as a "national security issue". If the US government does manage to solve the country's unmanageable permitting framework for new copper projects, Friedland will be owed a considerable debt of thanks.
Friedland's achievements have not gone unnoticed by industry onlookers, with the youthful-looking 71-year old officially inducted into the American Mining Hall of Fame early December.
- Mark Cutifani, CEO, Anglo American
Diversified miner Anglo American has developed a leadership position in the move to decarbonise the mining sector and the metals it produces, with Cutifani a vocal proponent of its role to help humanity avert a climate catastrophe. The company has adopted innovative solutions to install renewable energy at its operations and is leading the effort, with OEM partners, towards developing hydrogen-fuelled trucks, viewed by many as a key step to reduce the use of diesel in mining operations.
More controversially, Cutifani has overseen the company's diversification away from thermal coal at a time when coal prices have rebounded, having sold its one third ownership position in the Cerrejon mine in Colombia to partner Glencore, and more controversially, demerging Thungela and the thermal coal operations in South Africa, which is now looking to expand coal production.
Cutifani, who will step down in April 2022, is positioning Anglo as the diversified of the future with a strong focus on copper which will be augmented through the successful development of the Quellaveco copper mine in Peru, whose timing seems to be perfect to enjoy the next bull run in red metal prices.
- Jerome Powell, chair, Federal Reserve of the United States
As prices of metals and minerals started to rise in 2021 and excited talk of the "commodity supercycle" started to circulate, it became clear that inflation was going to be one of the themes of the year. And the future path of the dollar, and of the global commodity sector, lies in the hands of US Fed chair Jerome Powell.
Inflation in the US soared to 39-year highs of 6.8% in November. Logistics snarls, a red-hot labour market, COVID-induced fiscal stimulus, and the continued monetary tailwinds of low interest rates, have pushed prices up relentlessly month-on-month.
The US government is trying to keep the economy running hot, limiting price increases by untangling consumer snarls rather than pulling the rug out from under wage growth.
But the fact remains that with inflation more than three times its 2% target, and employment rates repeatedly beating expectations, the Fed has never had a clearer mandate to raise interest rates. The question will not be if rate hikes are coming, but when, and by how much. That decision could set the pace of commodity markets for the year to come.
- Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla Motors
With a shade over 66.5 million twitter followers and an array of businesses vying to shape the future of transport, it is hard to exclude the marmite entrepreneur from the upper echelons of this list.
As the central figure of the electric vehicle revolution, Musk effectively acts as a north star for miners as they decide which metals will be in greatest demand as battery chemistries evolve. If, for example, Musk says he's worried about a lack of nickel (as happened in February), then stuff happens: having outlined a supply agreement from the Goro nickel-cobalt mine in New Caledonia in March, Tesla reportedly signed a deal with the mine's new owner Prony Resources in October.
The major miners are getting involved. Tesla signed a supply deal with BHP for nickel from its Australian operations in July, and Musk's influence is evident in the current scrap for Noront Resources between BHP and Andrew Forrest's Wyloo Metals
While other major auto manufacturers - most recently Toyota - are pumping huge amounts of cash into electric vehicle development, it may not be long before Tesla is hauled back to the peloton. But for now, Musk is ahead of the pack and looking to press home the advantage.
- Wang Chuanfu, founder and CEO, BYD
Chinese electric vehicle sales soared in 2021, as Beijing continued its push for the rapid greening of the economy. China is by far the largest electric vehicle market, and BYD is China's largest producer of EVs, and second largest rechargeable battery producer.
This makes BYD the largest consumer of lithium batteries, as well as major purchaser of rare earths, minor metals. BYD's ability to deliver the vehicle buyers of China affordable electric and hybrid vehicles is make or break for the battery metal sector, which has bet heavily and continuously on electric transportation to deliver huge and rapid increases in demand.
And BYD's success in reaching those markets has borne fruit for founder and CEO Wang Chuanfu, whose personal wealth soared along the share price. Forbes now estimates Wang's wealth as US$24.5 billion, making him China's 14th richest person.
Wang, who has worked in the battery sector since college and founded BYD in 1995, has not been content to focus on the Chinese market. BYD has also been aggressive in overseas expansion, with a particular strong position globally in the electric bus sector.
- Mike Henry, CEO, BHP
It was a of bit of a toss-up between Henry and Stausholm for this spot, but the thinking was that Henry has been in the chair longer and has been less hamstrung by social issues, giving him more leeway to be proactive in his approach and to move BHP - and the industry - forward.
The approval of BHP's giant Jansen potash project in August has opened up a new potential area of growth for the company, but it is in the battery metals space where Henry is trying to leave his mark.
Such is Henry's conviction that the energy transition represents the main opportunity for BHP over the coming decades that the executive said in October he was prepared to venture to "tougher jurisdictions" to access copper and nickel deposits.
His comments followed reports that BHP was in talks to buy into an early-stage copper project in the DRC owned by Robert Friedland's Ivanhoe Mines. This approach goes against the company's traditional aversion to riskier parts of the world, but is likely to ruffle the feathers of certain investors and draw considerable media scrutiny. That said, if the alternative is a protracted bidding war for assets in tier one jurisdictions - see BHP's recent scrap with Wyloo Metals for Noront Resources - then the path less trodden looks to be unavoidable.
- Jakob Stausholm, CEO, Rio Tinto
Coming in as Rio Tinto's CEO after the carnage left behind by previous incumbent Jean-Sébastien Jacques was never going to be easy, but Stausholm has made a promising start in the top job. Having spent much of the past year managing the fall out from Juukan Gorge, Stausholm has begun to make his mark in recent months.
Under his leadership, Rio became the first major Western miner to push the button on a lithium development, with the miner approving US$2.4 billion in funding for its Jadar project in Serbia in July. Stausholm then announced in October the company would spend a whopping US$7.5 billion on decarbonisation initiatives between now and 2030. While not as ambitious as Fortescue Metals Group's net zero emissions by 2030, the announcement shows Rio has come a long way under Stausholm on the ‘E' in ESG in a short space of time.
Like BHP, Rio has also hinted it may be prepared to move into more challenging parts of the world in the quest to mine metals central to the energy transition. This seems a bold move, given the company's struggles in Mongolia and Guinea, so it will be fascinating to see how Stausholm walks the tightrope between higher ESG standards and jurisdictional risk over the coming year.
- Mark Bristow, CEO, Barrick Gold
Mark Bristow was once the voice of reason in the gold space, advocating zero premium mergers to push ahead with much needed consolidation and establishing ten-year guidance to make the sector more investable. But the game has moved on and Barrick is in danger of being left behind given that the market capitalisation of arch-rival Newmont is about one third greater than Barrick's US$31 billion, with the gap having stretched to about $14 billion.
Bristow pointed to the bleachers like Babe Ruth and proclaimed that Barrick needed to have a meaningful presence in Canada. But he swung and missed at Kirkland Lake Gold and Great Bear Resources, while Newcrest Mining stole base at Brucejack. There are few Barrick-scale assets left to play for in Canada, however Bristow is not afraid to go big, so maybe a bigger transaction is on the cards. Barrick has the firepower to do so with some $5 billion in cash on its balance sheet, which together with credit lines, means the company could swallow one or more of the smaller majors.
While this may or may not transpire, Barrick has been ploughing money into exploration, preferring to invest in squeezing the juice out of assets and land it already controls rather than paying more than it thinks it should for headline assets elsewhere. Nevada Gold Mines is advancing in leaps and bounds, justifying the merger Bristow strong-armed Newmont to enter.
ESG and carbon footprint now top mining company agendas and at a time when investors and regulators are calling for fewer and better-defined standards for ESG reporting, Barrick created its own scorecard, a move that cynics see as self-serving and which potentially alienates the company from investors. While many investors focus on total emissions, Bristow is at times a lone voice stating that operations in developing nations need to have their carbon footprint viewed with lenience by carbon puritans, given the considerable developmental good they can do, a message starting to be echoed by some investment funds.