Commentary: Time for the U.S. to address mineral dependence problem
Access to critical minerals and metals is vital to America’s military strength and economic health. As we move further forward into the technology age, we need a range of non-fuel minerals - from antimony to zinc - for defense technologies that protect the homeland and project American power abroad. These same minerals and metals underpin our manufacturing sector too, and the cost of raw materials impacts everything from productivity and innovation to economic growth and job creation.
Without smarter policies that increase access to resources under our own soil, America will continue to depend heavily on China, Russia, Kazakhstan, and other countries that don’t have our interests at heart.
Based on reports by the Department of Defense and others, American Resources Policy Network, my organization, has found that the U.S. is at least 50 percent dependent on foreign supplies for 43 vital minerals and metals that feed our defense and manufacturing sectors. That’s a greater dependence than we have on foreign oil. For 19 critical minerals, we’re 100 percent dependent.
The problem is crystal clear when we zero in on the Rare Earth elements, a group of 17 magnetic metals. Although the U.S. is once again producing Rare Earths, China still controls 95 percent of the global supply.
According to the Congressional Research Service, 10 of these metals are essential to our modern military technologies - including guidance and control systems, electronic warfare, targeting, electric motors, and battlefield communications. We also use them for smartphones, LED televisions, automobiles, hybrid batteries, and other products that fuel the U.S. economy and sustain manufacturing jobs.
The irony of U.S. dependence on China for Rare Earths is that 15 percent of available global resources can be found right here under American soil. Yet, right now we contribute to little more than one percent of global supply.
Why? Because blessed as we are geologically with scores of metals and minerals, America is one of the toughest places in the world to bring a new mine online.
Mining companies have to navigate a bureaucratic obstacle course to gain access to American mineral resources. According to the annual Behre Dolbear report on the top-25 mining nations, it takes up to ten years on average to obtain all the necessary permits to develop an American mine. By that measure, America ranks dead last year after year.
Under the current administration, federal agencies have continued to delay or impede the development of major American mineral deposits. In Arizona, one mining company has been trying for over 15 years to obtain approval from the U.S. Forestry Service to mine a Copper deposit just south of Tucson that would create an estimated 2,900 jobs and $19 billion worth of investment in the state.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has even expanded its authority under the Clean Water Act to thwart mining projects — including before they’ve applied for a permit. In Alaska, another mining company has discovered what could be the largest ever U.S. copper deposit, and the EPA has preemptively drafted an environmental assessment of the nearby Bristol Bay watershed, which it seems bent on using to preemptively deny a permit to develop this resource.
From a national security perspective, these policies make no sense. Copper is used extensively not only in construction, industrial machinery, transport vehicles, electronics, and power generation, but in next-gen energy alternatives like wind and solar power. It is also the second-most used material by the Department of Defense, and a key source of other strategic minerals through the refining process.
And while U.S. Federal agencies have blocked efforts to develop domestic copper resources, China continues to stockpile more Copper in its warehouses than the U.S. consumes in an entire year.
When it comes to our mineral dependence, President Obama has talked about Rare Earths, talked about strengthening manufacturing, and talked about the need for a modern military with state-of-the-art weaponry - all of which depend on a strong U.S. minerals access policy. But without taking more concrete steps, President Obama can only be judged by the obstructionist actions his Federal agencies have taken.
Gov. Mitt Romney has directly addressed the permitting process on the campaign trail, promising to streamline it and move more authority from the Federal government to states. Yet his focus has been exclusively on energy independence. He should expand his agenda to include resource independence. Ready access to reliable supplies of metals and minerals is every bit as critical to America’s national security, manufacturing competitiveness, and job creation.
McGroarty, president of American Resources Policy Network, a non-partisan education and public policy research organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., served as special assistant in the White House and as a presidential appointee at the Department of Defense.