America's Dangerous Foreign Mineral Dependence

America's Dangerous Foreign Mineral Dependence
AP Photo/Marc Hofer, File

Now that we’ve finally made progress in our long struggle for energy security — thanks to fracking and the shale revolution — we are sleepwalking into a dangerous import dependence on the minerals and metals that are the building blocks to our 21st century economy. Our reliance on imported minerals and metals required for production of cars and other consumer goods is at record levels

With world production of electric vehicles (EVs) projected to rise, leading carmakers expect that demand for minerals, such as cobalt, graphite, and lithium, will grow significantly. But there is a threat hanging over U.S. access to these minerals, which are needed to produce everything from batteries to circuits and recharging stations. For example, more than half of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a politically unstable country, racked by civil war, where child labor is used in mines. Demand for cobalt — and other highly sought-after minerals that come from the Congo or several adjoining war-torn African countries — is expected to soar in the next few years. China, also rich in minerals and metals, poses similar where supply problems.

A group of 10 leading passenger car and truck manufacturers recently announced a joint initiative to address this growing problem. Other technologies challenged by growing dependence on imported minerals include cell phones, flat-screen TVs, and similar consumer goods. Today, imports make up more than one-half of U.S. consumption of 50 widely-used minerals, and the U.S. is 100 percent reliant for 20 of those. 

The perceived understanding of America’s growing import dependence is that our nation lacks the mineral and metal resources necessary to satisfy domestic demand or curb reliance on unreliable imports. But that assumption is wrong. In reality, a lengthy, outdated federal permitting process has made it increasingly difficult to gain access to domestic resources — and thus meet the needs of the relevant industries.

Take tungsten and tantalum, for example. These minerals are indispensable for auto production: Tungsten is needed for circuits, gear teeth, and bearing components; tantalum is used for audio equipment, sensors, wiper systems, seat belts, and the fuel pump. The U.S. government’s process for securing the necessary mine permits for these minerals is such that it now takes close to 10 years — one of the longest permitting processes in the world for mining projects.

There’s absolutely no reason for a permitting process to take a decade. In Australia and Canada — both nations with comparable environmental safeguards — mine permitting takes just 2 to 3 years. The time for reform is long past. 

It is noteworthy that federal lands account for as much as 86 percent of the land area in some Western states and that those states account for 75 percent of our nation’s metals production. In fact, the U.S. possesses a mineral reserve base worth $6.2 trillion. However, half of the nation’s hard-rock mineral lands are off-limits or under restrictions for mining. Because of lack of access and regulatory problems, America’s ability to develop domestic minerals has been severely restricted. 

In sum, we cannot wholly prevent upheavals in African countries or trade problems with China and other mineral-exporting countries that cut the supply or raise the price of minerals.

By revamping our outdated and duplicative permitting process, we can ease the regulatory burden around the mining of domestic minerals here at home. By thus reducing our reliance on imports, we can help provide for the long-term health of American industries and the American economy as a whole. 

Matthew Kandrach is President of CASE — Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.

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