Opinion

Solving the Imported Minerals Problem

America is awakening to the danger of its heavy dependence on foreign sources of minerals and metals. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned that China and Russia are the primary suppliers of strategically important minerals for national defense and a wide variety of commercial products and said the problem is “absolutely critical.”  

The White House and the Pentagon also see a seriousness in U.S. reliance on key mineral resources. Congress is considering legislation that would deal with the growing problem.

This attention is not misplaced. Reform is needed in policies that permit the continued reliance on foreign countries for most minerals and metals and blur distinctions between what is beneficial and what is harmful. 

Today, the United States is entirely dependent on other countries for 18 minerals and more than 50 percent reliant on imports for another 30 minerals. China is the primary supplier for nearly half of the minerals, and it has made dominance in global minerals production a strategic priority.

Pompeo said the dangers can be seen in over-dependence on imports of two minerals in particular — rare earths and uranium.  Rare earths are 17 chemical elements, such as dysprosium, lanthanum and cerium, which are essential in building laser-guidance systems for weapons, jet-fighter engines, night-time goggles and smart bombs. Rare earths are also needed for electric-vehicle batteries, wind turbines, flat-screen TVs and other commercial products.

China supplies virtually all of the rare earths. The one rare earth mine in the United States sends its ore to China for processing.

Our national policies have crippled domestic uranium production. There are only two uranium mines left in the United States — one in Utah, the other in Wyoming.

Though uranium is needed for weapons production and as fuel to power the Navy’s aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, the United States relies on imports for 93 percent of its uranium, much of it from Russia and other former Soviet Union states.  This is a strategic vulnerability, because as a result of the collapse of the U.S. nuclear fuels industry, there is no domestic capacity to replace stockpiled uranium for defense purposes. Consequently, the commercial fleet of nuclear power plants is now almost entirely dependent on imports of nuclear fuel.

Legitimate concern about weaknesses in our minerals policy should not, however, obfuscate what remains the central point: The United States has been and should continue to be a mining country. It’s not as if the United States lacks mineral resources.  There are mineral resources on public lands in the Western states worth an estimated $6.2 trillion.

There have always been those who oppose mining. But the need for minerals has never been greater. From platinum and chromium to copper, they are the building blocks of our 21st-century economy.

The reality is that our dependence on foreign sources has doubled in the past 20 years.  The White House and Congress must make self-sufficiency a strategic goal.

Reforming our licensing policy so that companies can get a permit to open a new mine in three years instead of 10 years or more is essential. Our national interest lies in resolving the problem of import dependence without further delay. It is action by Congress — and the availability of new permitting rules at the earliest possible time — that is crucial.

 

Dan Ervin, Ph.D., is a professor of finance in the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University.

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