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Blackwater USA – Daily Brief

Libya

  • The LNA and GNA agreed to a temporary, UN brokered ceasefire in Tripoli for Eid, “so that Libyan citizens can celebrate this Eid in peace.” An Al Jazeera article pasted below has more details.
  • This will probably be like last year’s Eid ceasefire in Afghanistan, where the Taliban went right back to staging attacks after the holiday ended. (Eid runs August 11 to 15).
  • I guess the ceasefire doesn’t extend throughout the country: a car bomb near Arkan Mall in Hawari, Benghazi killed three UN workers. Neither side has claimed the attack.

China

  • Hong Kong’s protesters are running away from police, who are chasing them through the city on their 10th weekend of demonstrations. There are early reports of clashes between protesters and police, but I imagine we’ll hear more when the dust settles tonight.
  • The NYT says it doubts that China has actually closed its Uighur re-education camps, as China claimed recently. It does seem a little far-fetched that China would close such a large operation down so quickly after only some rather subtle international condemnation.

Yemen

  • Yemen’s Security Belt separatists seized Aden and the presidential palace—apparently with no resistance from Pres. Hadi’s forces.

Iraq

  • A U.S. soldier was killed during an operation with Iraqi partners in Nineveh. As usual, the Pentagon hasn’t released details yet.

Turkey

  • Turkey accused the YPG of attacking a Turkish military base in northeastern Syria and wounding two Turkish soldiers.

Brexit

  • Queen Elizabeth made some unusually harsh comments about British politics during a private event, saying that the UK’s current leaders have an “inability to govern.”

U.S.

  • Officials say that five U.S. Walmart locations have been targeted by threats, in the wake of last week’s shooting at a store in El Paso.

Strategic Minerals

  • The BBC had a great article on why cobalt prices have crashed, even though analysts had predicted tremendous growth just a year ago: in short, demand has been lower than expected because of high taxes and bad labor practices in DRC, while supplies have been flooded because producers and manufacturers became overoptimistic about the metal’s prospects. Article pasted below.

Other News

  • Malaysia levied criminal charges on 17 Goldman Sachs directors over the 1MDB scandal. Goldman organized the bond sales that financed the theft.
  • A nuclear explosion near the city of Severodvink, Russia may have killed two scientists working at the site—though their bodies haven’t been found yet. The radiation appears to have dissipated.

Libya’s warring sides agree to UN-backed temporary Eid truce (Al Jazeera)

The ceasefire announcement came after a car bomb killed 3 UN staff in Benghazi.

Forces battling for control of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, have agreed to a truce on the eve of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

The announcement on Saturday came as a car bomb killed three United Nations staff in the eastern city of Benghazi, the stronghold for the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

The UN is trying to broker a truce in Tripoli, where the LNA in April launched a surprise attack to seize the city from forces loyal to the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

The global agency had called on both sides to commit to a humanitarian truce by midnight on Friday.

The spokesman for renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, Ahmad al-Mesmari, announced “a halt to all military operations … in the suburbs of Tripoli”.

The ceasefire was “out of respect for this occasion’s place in our spirits … so that Libyan citizens can celebrate this Eid in peace,” he said.

The GNA had said late on Friday that it was eager to “ease the suffering of the citizens and allow rescue workers to accomplish their mission” and would accept “a humanitarian truce for Eid al-Adha”.

But it listed several conditions, saying the ceasefire must be observed “in all combat zones, with a cessation of direct and indirect fire and movement of troops”.

It also said the truce must include “a ban on flights and reconnaissance overflights” across the country’s entire airspace.

The GNA also called on the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to “ensure the implementation of the truce and note any breaches”.

In Haftar-controlled Benghazi, a car bomb killed three UN staff – a Libyan and a Fijian – as a UN convoy passed through a shopping area, security and medical officials said.

The explosion took place outside Arkan Mall in the Hawari neighbourhood on Saturday, where people were shopping.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the latest attack in Benghazi, calling “on all parties to respect the humanitarian truce during Eid al Adha and return to the negotiating table to pursue the peaceful future the people of Libya deserve,” according to a statement.

The UN Security Council was due to meet later on Saturday, at the request of France, to discuss the latest developments in Libya.

Why smartphones are no longer driving the search for ‘blue gold’ (BBC)

Cobalt is one of those metals that define the modern world.

Historically it was used to colour glass or ceramics. The Egyptians were using cobalt compounds 2,600 years ago in their sculptures.

But in the 20th Century, cobalt was found to have qualities central to our most advanced technologies.

Combining it with other metals produces alloys that are immensely tough, stable under extreme temperatures and anti-corrosive.

So you will find it in aircraft engines, rockets, nuclear power stations, turbines, cutting tools, even artificial hip joints.

That alone made it valuable, but what has made it especially precious to investors and speculators is its role in the cathodes of rechargeable batteries.

It is no surprise that investors have called the metal “blue gold”.

From 2008, the rising popularity of the smartphone ramped up demand for batteries that could recharge at an ever faster rate.

Then four years ago, the electric car (EV) seized the imagination of the cobalt traders.

From 2016 until 2018, the price of cobalt soared, from about $26,000 (£21,500) a tonne to more than $90,000.

More than 50% of all cobalt demand is now for battery use, while the EU and the US both class cobalt as a critical raw material.

Then last year, the price crashed.

This week, Swiss-based miner Glencore shut the Mutanda cobalt mine, the world’s biggest, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), saying it was “no longer economically viable”.

So what went wrong with the cobalt boom?

Haste and hoarding

In short, the market overreached itself.

The age of the electric vehicle is about to dawn – but not quite yet.

As one industry source said: “Everyone is talking about it but who exactly is manufacturing electric vehicles at scale? Tesla? Who else? And how many charging points do you see in London?”

Another factor was that several processors – largely in China and Africa – were hoarding cobalt in the hope of making a killing as the price rose.

They started to release those stocks just as investors realised that EV demand was not yet as massive as people had hoped.

But most analysts who follow the cobalt market say the fundamentals have not gone away.

At the heart of this argument is the precarious nature of cobalt’s supply. It is an element that occurs nowhere on earth in a “free” form, but which has to be chemically prised from copper or nickel using acids and heat.

More than 60% of global supply comes from the DRC, which is commonly described as being to cobalt what Saudi Arabia is to oil.

And as George Heppel, head of cobalt and lithium analysis at CRU International, explains, the DRC is not an easy place to do business in.

‘Massive hike’

Despite last December’s democratic election – the first since independence in 1960 – the politics are unpredictable, to say the least.

Mr Heppel said: “The country’s mining code had promised another 10-year freeze on the amount of royalties mining companies had to pay the government. Then suddenly it increased that royalty from 2.5% up to 10%. That is a massive hike.”

Earlier this year, Verisc Maplecroft, the influential global risk consultant, named the DRC as top of its list of countries most likely to nationalise their resource industries, equal with Venezuela. “That,” said Mr Heppel, “gives you an idea of how risky it is to invest in the country.”

And then there is corruption.

Glencore itself is facing investigations by the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the US Department of Justice relating to its operations in countries that include the DRC.

However, now that Glencore is closing down Mutanda, some 25,000 tonnes of cobalt will be taken out of global supply. That should start to stabilise prices.

Mr Heppel believes it will take until the end of the year before the effect is felt on the market.

And as prices start to creep up, another factor will return to the market – the artisanal miners.

Cost of production – in lives

These are freelance miners working in horrendous conditions, injured and sometimes dying in landslips as they work with hand-held tools under appalling conditions. Amnesty International’s report in 2013 described frequent injuries and asphyxiation, due to a lack of adequate ventilation in mining pits, some more than 100m deep.

Two months ago, more than 40 miners were killed working illegally on a Glencore site in Lualaba province in south-east DRC when a mine collapsed.

Unicef estimates that there are approximately 40,000 children working in mines across southern DRC.

Amnesty has accused Apple, Samsung and Sony, among others, of failing to do basic checks to ensure the miners did not include children.

Despite international condemnation, artisanal mining continues. In fact, Mr Heppel says the ebb and flow of this kind of mining is tightly linked to the market price.

As the price rose in 2017, CRU International estimated that the miners’ output rose from 6,500 tonnes to more than 24,000. Then, as it fell, so did their output – down to 10,000 tonnes.

By 2020, he expects the miners’ output to hit record levels as they take up the slack from the closing of the Glencore site, risking their health and lives in the unregulated market to feed our green demand for electric cars.

The supply chains of cobalt are chaotic and muddied, stretching from shacks in the southern DRC to warehouses in China. It is almost impossible to trace how and by whom any cobalt stock was mined.

But while the mobile phone companies have been been told to check up on their suppliers, the car companies have so far escaped criticism.

Future boom?

But the time is coming, says CRU International, when they will be buying cobalt on a massive scale.

Mr Heppel says: “When we look at the EV market over the next 10 years, we see the big increase coming in 2020 to 2021. That will be the crunch time for global demand for cobalt as the big car companies, the BMWs, the VWs, Ford and Daimler are set to increase production.”

He estimates demand for cobalt for car batteries will grow by between 24% and 35% every year from 2020 to 2023.

Even if Glencore brings Mutanda back on stream (the shutdown is for “care and maintenance”), and with the artisanal miners producing anything up to 40,000 tonnes a year, Mr Heppel believes it won’t be sufficient to meet demand.

“There needs to be new supply of cobalt,” he said. “There has been a lot of talk about the next-generation battery technology, but there is still nothing that competes with the nickel cobalt battery.

“There are some that in theory, in laboratory conditions, are cheaper and more efficient, but so far none have been proven to be commercially viable.”