Reliance on Foreign Minerals Leaves America at Risk

Reliance on Foreign Minerals Leaves America at Risk
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The taboo against hard-rock mining in the United States is nonsensical and should be abandoned. Instead, America should embrace a far wiser policy of ensuring greater access to minerals on our public lands, since it’s in our national and economic interest.  This would help reduce our heavy dependence on foreign nations for minerals that are needed in the production of advanced weapons systems and a multitude of consumer technologies.

Environmentalists, along with some of their friends in Congress, remain the biggest opponents of domestic mining, but ironically they should be among its biggest cheerleaders. Among the metals that must be imported from abroad in growing amounts is copper, which is used in wind turbines, batteries for electric vehicles, and solar panels.  But growing use of EVs and renewable energy systems will require higher volumes of copper, lithium and other materials.  These could be extracted profitably in the United States if not for restrictive and redundant environmental regulations. 

Among the critical metals which are on federally-owned public lands often beyond the reach of mining companies include manganese, cobalt, nickel, graphite, aluminum, and several rare earths.  In fact, the U.S. is 100% import-reliant for 18 minerals – 14 of which have been deemed “critical” by the departments of defense or interior.  These minerals have numerous broad applications across our economy, and especially the energy sector. Given this level of dependence, reliance on foreign producers is an enormously short-sighted and dangerous policy.

The current problem stems from America adhering to a highly duplicative and inefficient system of regulatory permits and oversight that governs domestic mining. Over all, the mining industry is struggling with a regulatory system that forces them to wait seven to 10 years to obtain a mining permit, in contrast to Canada and Australia where the process takes two to three years.

The permit system was set up during a very different era when the U.S. dominated the production and use of minerals.  But those days are long past.  China is now the world’s leading producer and exporter of minerals and metals, supplying many that are critical to U.S. manufacturing, our technology and energy sectors, and national defense. Our ongoing dependence is not only a potential vulnerability during a time of increased global tensions, but greatly limits our nation’s ability to capitalize on our mineral wealth.

U.S. manufacturers and energy producers are vulnerable to export restrictions that limit access to the materials that can result in two-tier pricing, under which domestic manufacturers in China have access to materials at lower prices than those charged for exports. This has serious implications for U.S. companies, as it not only undermines their competitive position, but creates added pressure to move manufacturing away from the U.S. to China.

Congress needs to take action to overhaul mining regulation and ensure that U.S. industries have access to domestically-mined minerals.   Minerals from U.S. public lands, not foreign imports, should be the pillar upon which our advanced energy, infrastructure and manufacturing technologies rely. This would not only eliminate our dependence on China and other countries, but would also create a corresponding boost to U.S. manufacturing and our position in the global economy.

The economic gains would be substantial. Even now, domestic mining provides nearly two million jobs and $44 billion a year in tax payments to U.S. governments at all levels – federal, state and local.

For sure, the reality of growing global competition for minerals requires a new way of thinking and talking about America’s position and how to facilitate an increase in domestic mining.

“Minerals independence” should be made a subject of serious discussion and debate.  A surge in domestic mining could become an engine of economic growth that benefits the American consumer and industry alike.  Increasing domestic supply of minerals means that fewer dollars are going overseas and more of them are staying at home.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska and chair of the Energy Committee, has introduced a bill that would, among other things, greatly improve the permitting process for domestic minerals mining.  Removing regulatory hurdles to U.S. mining is long overdue.  Utilizing our nation’s vast minerals reserves would enable the mining industry increase its already significant contributions to our economy, job creation, and national defense. U.S. competitiveness, energy independence, and our national security can all greatly benefit from the treasures to be mined here at home.

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

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