Water markets are not perfect, but vital to the future of the Murray-Darling Basin



kaman985shu/Shutterstock

Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

Water markets have come in for some bad press lately, fuelled in part by the severe drought of 2019 and resulting high water prices.

They have also been the subject of an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry, whose interim report released last year documented a range of problems with the way water markets work in the Murray-Darling Basin. The final report was handed to the treasurer last week.

While water markets are far from perfect, new research from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) has found they are vital in helping the region cope with drought and climate change, producing benefits in the order of A$117 million per year.

To make the most of water markets, we will need to keep improving the rules and systems which support them. But with few “off-the-shelf” solutions, further reform will require both perseverance and innovation.

Water markets generate big benefits

Australia’s biggest and most active water markets are in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, which covers the Murray River and its tributaries in Victoria, NSW and South Australia.

Murray Darling Basin.
MDBA

Each year water right holders are assigned “allocations”: shares of water in the rivers’ major dams. These allocations can be traded across the river system, helping to get water where it is most needed.

Water markets also allow for “carryover”: where rights holders store rather than use their allocations, holding them in dams for use in future droughts.

Our research estimates that water trading and carryover generate benefits to water users in the southern Murray-Darling, of A$117 million on average per year (around 12% of the value of water rights) with even larger gains in dry years. Carryover plays a key role, accounting for around half of these benefits.

Together water trading and carryover act to smooth variability in water prices, while also slightly lowering average prices across the basin.

There’s room for improvement

One of many issues raised in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission interim report was the design of the trading rules, including limits on how much water can move between regions.

These rules are intended to reflect the physical limits of the river system, however getting them right is extremely difficult.

The rules we have are relatively blunt, such that there is potential at different times for either too much water to be traded or too little.

National Electricity Market.
AGL

One possible refinement is a shift from a rules-based system to one with more central coordination.

For example, in electricity, these problems are addressed via so-called “smart markets”: centralised computer systems which balance demand and supply across the grid in real-time.

Such an approach is unlikely to be feasible for water in the foreseeable future.

But a similar outcome could be achieved by establishing a central agency to determine inter-regional trade volumes, taking into account user demands, river constraints, seasonal conditions and environmental objectives.

While novel in Australia, the approach has parallels in the government-operated “drought water banks” that have emerged in some parts of the United States.

Some of the good ideas are our own

Another possible refinement involves water sharing rules, which specify how water allocations are determined and how they are carried over between years.

At present these rules are often complex and lacking in transparency. This can lead to a perceived disconnect between water allocations and physical water supply, creating uncertainty for users and undermining confidence in the market.

Although markets in the northern Murray-Darling Basin are generally less advanced than the south, some sophisticated water sharing systems have evolved in the north to deal with the region’s unique hydrology (highly variable river flows and small dams).

Beardmore Dam at St George in Southern Queensland, where water markets operate under a capacity sharing system.
ABARES

There is potential for the southern basin to make use of these northern innovations (known as “capacity sharing” or “continuous accounting”) to improve transparency and carryover decisions.

Don’t throw the market out with the river water

Governance failures in the water market have led to understandable frustration.

But it is important to remember how vital trading and carryover are in smoothing variations in water prices and making sure water gets where it is needed, especially during droughts.

The ACCC’s final report (due soon) will provide an opportunity to take stock and develop a roadmap for the future.


Water markets will be discussed at Today’s ABARES Outlook 2021 conference in an online panel session at 3-4pm AEDT.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Critical minerals are vital for renewable energy. We must learn to mine them responsibly


Bénédicte Cenki-Tok, University of Sydney

As the world shifts away from fossil fuels, we will need to produce enormous numbers of wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and batteries. Demand for the materials needed to build them will skyrocket.

This includes common industrial metals such as steel and copper, but also less familiar minerals such as the lithium used in rechargeable batteries and the rare earth elements used in the powerful magnets required by wind turbines and electric cars. Production of many of these critical minerals has grown enormously over the past decade with no sign of slowing down.

Australia is well placed to take advantage of this growth – some claim we are on the cusp of a rare earths boom – but unless we learn how to do it in a responsible manner, we will only create a new environmental crisis.

What are critical minerals?

Critical minerals” are metals and non-metals that are essential for our economic future but whose supply may be uncertain. Their supply may be threatened by geopolitics, geological accessibility, legislation, economic rules or other factors.

One consequence of a massive transition to renewables will be a drastic increase not only in the consumption of raw materials (including concrete, steel, aluminium, copper and glass) but also in the diversity of materials used.

Three centuries ago, the technologies used by humanity required half a dozen metals. Today we use more than 50, spanning almost the entire periodic table. However, like fossil fuels, minerals are finite.




Read more:
Metals and minerals will be the next finite resource shortfall


Can we ‘unlearn’ renewables to make them sustainable?

If we take a traditional approach to mining critical minerals, in a few decades they will run out – and we will face a new environmental crisis. At the same time, it is still unclear how we will secure supply of these minerals as demand surges.

This is further complicated by geopolitics. China is a major producer, accounting for more than 60% of rare earth elements, and significant amounts of tungsten, bismuth and germanium.

This makes other countries, including Australia, dependent on China, and also means the environmental pollution due to mining occurs in China.

The opportunity for Australia is to produce its own minerals, and to do so in a way that minimises environmental harm and is sustainable.

Where to mine?

Australia has well established resources in base metals (such as gold, iron, copper, zinc and lead) and presents an outstanding potential in critical minerals. Australia already produces almost half of lithium worldwide, for example.

Existing and potential sites for mining critical minerals.
Geoscience Australia

In recent years, Geoscience Australia and several universities have focused research on determining which critical minerals are associated with specific base ores.

For example, the critical minerals gallium and indium are commonly found as by-products in deposits of lead and zinc.

To work out the best places to look for critical minerals, we will need to understand the geological processes that create concentrations of them in the Earth’s crust.

Critical minerals are mostly located in magmatic rocks, which originate from the Earth’s mantle, and metamorphic rocks, which have been transformed during the formation of mountains. Understanding these rocks is key to finding critical minerals and recovering them from the bulk ores.

Magmatic rocks such as carbonatite may contain rare earth elements.
Bénédicte Cenki-Tok, Author provided

Fuelling the transition

For most western economies, rare earth elements are the most vital. These have electromagnetic properties that make them essential for permanent magnets, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, LCD screens and more. Australia shows a great potential in various deposit types across all states.

The Northern Territory is leading with the Nolans Bore mine already in early-stage operations. But many other minerals are vital to economies like ours.

Cobalt and lithium are essential to ion batteries. Gallium is used in photodetectors and photovoltaics systems. Indium is used for its conductive properties in screens.

Critical minerals mining is seen now as an unprecedented economic opportunity for exploration, extraction and exportation.

Recent agreements to secure supply to the US opens new avenues for the Australian mining industry.

How can we make it sustainable?

Beyond the economic opportunity, this is also an environmental one. Australia has the chance to set an example to the world of how to make the supply of critical minerals sustainable. The question is: are we willing to?

Many of the techniques for creating sustainable minerals supply still need to be invented. We must invest in geosciences, create new tools for exploration, extraction, beneficiation and recovery, treat the leftover material from mining as a resource instead of waste, develop urban mining and find substitutes and effective recycling procedures.

In short, we must develop an integrated approach to the circular economy of critical minerals. One potential example to follow here is the European EURARE project initiated a decade ago to secure a future supply of rare earth elements.

More than ever, we need to bridge the gap between disciplines and create new synergies to make a sustainable future. It is essential to act now for a better planet.The Conversation

Bénédicte Cenki-Tok, Associate professor at Montpellier University, EU H2020 MSCA visiting researcher, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.