Embarrassment of Riches: Reversing U.S. minerals import dependency

The attached policy study was co-authored by R Street Senior Fellow Catrina Rorke.

As recently as 1990, the United States was the world’s largest producer of minerals—a collection of nonfuel resources that are the building blocks of today’s technologies. In the ensuing decades, quite a different trend has emerged. Of 88 mineral commodities tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the United States is more than 25 percent import-dependent for 62 of them.

That trend is growing worse. In its annual Mineral Commodity Summary, USGS notes:

Several U.S. metal mines and processing facilities were idled or closed permanently in 2016, including iron ore mines in Michigan and Minnesota; three primary aluminum smelters in Indiana, Missouri, and Washington; one secondary zinc smelter in North Carolina; a titanium sponge facility in Utah, the only such facility in the United States; and titanium mineral operations in Virginia.

Domestic trends aside, minerals are a fundamental building block to economic prosperity. The industries that rely on minerals, including construction and manufacturing, contributed $2.78 trillion to the domestic economy, nearly 15 percent of gross domestic product. On this basis alone, declining minerals production and processing should be concerning. But it is the types of manufactured goods that rely on minerals that make import-dependency of significant consequence.

The broad term “minerals” captures a variety of elemental metals and compounds with unique and varied properties. Collectively, minerals are essential to the manufacture of energy equipment, medical devices, electronics, agricultural products, household items and a range of goods essential to the national defense. Some minerals are so necessary to military operations that the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency maintains 37 mineral commodities as part of the U.S. National Defense Stockpile.

So why is the domestic minerals industry closing up shop? A 2016 study by the Government Accountability Office, “Strengthened Federal Approach Needed to Help Identify and Mitigate Supply Risks for Critical Raw Materials,” details the government’s approach to addressing critical materials-supply issues. It’s an overdue first step and concludes that government must do much more to stem foreign mineral imports, particularly by addressing waning domestic mineral mining.

This paper explores import trends for critical and strategic minerals in the context of public-resource policies and articulates that minerals import dependence is a willful product of policy that can and should be reversed.

Image by thechatat

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