The following op-ed was co-authored by R Street Senior Fellow Catrina Rorke.
The Trump administration is driving a massive pivot on public-lands policy. President Donald Trump has called for an analysis of 20 years of national monument designations; the U.S. Interior Department has lifted the moratorium on granting leases for coal development; and perhaps most significantly, the Environmental Protection Agency lifted a pre-emptive veto on a massive proposed minerals mine in southwestern Alaska. These actions might draw the ire of environmentalists and activists across the country, but they’re a firm step toward righting the ship on our national approach to mineral resources on federal lands
The proposed Pebble Mine would bring to market 6.44 billion metric tons of copper, gold, molybdenum and silver, four commodities in the group known as critical and strategic minerals. These minerals are critical for the manufacture of goods as varied as medical devices and agricultural products, and contribute to industries that added $2.78 trillion to gross domestic product last year. Critical and strategic minerals get their designation not just because they’re economically vital; they also are essential to national defense. The Pentagon maintains 37 mineral commodities as part of the Defense National Stockpile.
As recently as 1990, the United States was the world’s largest producer of mineral resources. Geologically speaking, we’re rich. The American West is the site of one of the largest, most diverse and most unusually concentrated mineral belts in the world, extending from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean. That geological terrain hosts world-class deposits of minerals like chromium, copper, fluorine, gold, molybdenum, platinum and uranium, to name just a few.
But over the past three decades, quite a different trend has emerged. Earlier this year, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that, of 88 important minerals they track, the United States is more than 25 percent import-dependent for 62 of them. For 20 of those, we rely 100 percent on imports. Many of those 20 key minerals are absolutely critical to the economy and national defense.
The risk to the United States comes not just from its import-dependency, but its dependency on imports from countries known to use domestic resource wealth as a diplomatic and trade weapon. The asymmetric distribution of mineral wealth across the globe allows individual countries to be the majority supplier of any number of minerals. China and Russia stand out as particularly significant, because the United States is disproportionately dependent upon their imports. China, by far the world’s largest source of minerals, has already used its rare earth mineral wealth as a diplomatic weapon. As Chinese statesman Deng Xiaoping said in 1992, “The Middle East has its oil, China has rare earth.”
Resources are powerful economic weapons. Consider the 1973 oil crisis: In retaliation for international support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cut production and prohibited the export of petroleum to the United States and a number of other nations that sided with Israel. Prices for oil more than quadrupled, consumers and corporations had trouble accessing supplies and the global economy raced toward recession. Only after significant concessions were made by the United States and its allies was the embargo lifted by the oil cartel.
In the wake of the oil embargo, U.S. industry and government agencies launched ambitious research and resource development programs that yielded the fracking industry and our current petroleum abundance. We shouldn’t wait for a similar precipitous event involving minerals supplies.
It’s not complicated. Not only does the United States house one of the most abundant mineral belts in the world, but we know where much of those minerals are likely located. We’re not held back by geology, but by a devastating tilt toward “preservation” – the view that resources have more inherent value than productive value. That’s caused excessively long permitting timelines, land withdrawals, capitulation to environmental opposition and a federal government that fails to be wise stewards of the public domain.
The president has launched an ambitious new approach to resources, and Congress isn’t far behind. Earlier this year, the members of the Nevada and Idaho congressional delegations introduced in both chambers the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act, which charges the Interior and Agriculture departments with more efficiently developing critical and strategic minerals on federal lands.
The United States is blessed with expansive mineral deposits, and a more secure minerals future is within reach. Conscientious policy reforms to cultivate a smaller, less intrusive and more focused government minerals policy can successfully reconcile economic growth with environmental protection, empower the marketplace and shift the country away from over-reliance on imports of critical and strategic minerals, especially from China and Russia.
Image by Mark Agnor