According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States is 100 percent import dependent for at least 20 critical and strategic minerals (not including the “rare earths”), and between 50 percent and 99 percent dependent for another 30 key minerals. For example, the United States is totally dependent on imports for vital strategic metals that are necessary components for military weapons systems, cellphones, solar panels, lithium ion batteries, and many high-technology products. The reason for this dependency is not due to geologic impediments, but due to politics. Large portions of public lands in the West have not been sufficiently explored, and permitting in the United States takes seven to ten years compared to two or three years in Australia and Canada.
In fact, the United States is much more dependent upon the key imported minerals that are essential for making the electric cars and renewable energy sources advocated for by opponents of fossil fuels than the United States was ever dependent on imported fossil fuels.
President Trump plans to reverse this trend. On December 20, 2017, he issued a policy directive, “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” which directs the development of a strategy to reduce reliance on foreign sources for critical minerals, such as rare-earth elements, and promoting policies to increase U.S. critical mineral development. The goal is to open up federal lands and streamline the permitting process so that the United States can mine these resources. The U.S. Mining Association estimates that the United States is endowed with over $6 trillion in these resources, which could add $50 billion to the economy every year.
The day after President Trump issued his directive, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke issued a secretarial order, “Critical Mineral Independence and Security,” to direct his staff to take the following actions: 1) identify new sources of critical minerals, 2) develop a list of critical minerals by February 18, 2018, 3) improve the topographic, geological, and geophysical mapping of the United States and make these data accessible to support private sector mineral exploration of critical minerals, and 4) improve access and streamline permitting of mining operations.
According to Secretary Zinke, “The fact that previous administrations allowed the United States to become reliant on foreign nations, including our competitors and adversaries, for minerals that are so strategically important to our security and economy is deeply troubling. As both a former military commander and geologist, I know the very real national security risk of relying on foreign nations for what the military needs to keep our soldiers and our homeland safe.”
As a former Navy SEAL, Zinke was interested in an analysis prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that identified the critical minerals that would be components of a Navy SEAL’s combat equipment. Night-vision goggles have five critical mineral elements, communications gear and a Global Positioning System have 13, and an M4 rifle has three.
Countries that supply critical minerals to the United States include China, Russia, South Africa, Brazil, and Canada. The USGS report indicates that 20 out of the 23 critical minerals that the United States needs come from China. For some of these minerals, China has flooded the market with low prices, and raised them later when their competitors were out of business.
Rare-earth elements, needed for almost all high-end electronics, are produced almost entirely in China. While the United States has reserves of rare-earth elements in California and other Western states, those reserves have been “undercut” by low-production costs in China due to far less environmental regulation. In fact, a former California rare-earth mine has been idled due to financial difficulties and bankruptcy.
According to the deputy associate director of the Geological Survey, the United States has “deposits of every element in the periodic table” but faces economic and regulatory hurdles to production. The United States was ranked as the world’s largest producer of these minerals until 1995, when China took its place.
The United States has bountiful supplies of critical and strategic minerals necessary for all technologies, including energy. It is a good thing that the Trump Administration is looking to change policies to accommodate the production of more of those minerals in the United States.