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Commentary: US Needs a Minerals Policy

Reliance on Foreign Sources Risks Readiness

Sep. 25, 2013 - 03:03PM   |  
By HAL QUINN   |   Comments
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In June, the US House Armed Services Committee released a draft of the fiscal 2014 Defense Authorization Act, which included several proposals dealing with critical minerals often used in Defense Department weapon systems.

For years, the Pentagon has raised concerns about access to minerals, and yet the government still lacks a modern, coherent minerals procurement strategy and useful mineral resources remain locked beneath US soil. As a result, US military and defense contractors find themselves at the mercy of foreign countries for the minerals they need.

Minerals are critical components of the advanced technologies on which modern militaries rely. Each year, DoD must acquire roughly 750,000 tons of minerals for an array of systems to ensure America’s fighting force remains at the cutting-edge. Beryllium, for example, is used in the airborne forward-looking infrared system, missile guidance systems and surveillance satellites, while molybdenum is an effective smoke suppressant and fire retardant — especially useful in the confined spaces on aircraft.

Despite the importance of these resources, the military and its suppliers are unable to readily access many of the minerals they need. As revealed by the DoD’s 2013 Strategic and Critical Materials Report, the US faces shortfalls of 23 minerals crucial to national security. This year, the US Geological Survey warned that we remain 100 percent dependent on imports for 18 minerals — many of which were flagged in the DoD’s report.

As the world’s population surges and millions join the middle class in fast-rising economies, demand and competition for these vital ores will continue to rise. According to a recent report by retired Army Brig. Gen. John Adams for the Alliance for American Manufacturing, “The increased demand for minerals has encouraged resource nationalism, where countries seek to exert greater control over the extraction and processing of key elements. Many minerals are mined in only a few countries, exposing the United States to potential supply disruptions and other risks.”

Night-vision devices (NVDs) offer a prime example of how supply disruptions threaten our military. NVDs are integral to countless defense operations and were key to mission success in capturing Osama Bin Laden. Despite ranking in the top four globally for rare earth reserves, the US imports nearly 80 percent of the rare earth elements needed to manufacture NVDs — among other defense technologies — from China. In recent years, China has imposed export restrictions on rare earths, forcing prices for the minerals to increase by nearly 300 percent and tightening the supplies available to American manufacturers.

Simply put, the United States cannot remain at the mercy of foreign governments for key security minerals and continue to jeopardize its strategic autonomy.

There is a solution to these escalating supply concerns, one that would both boost America’s security outlook and the economy: the $6.2 trillion worth of key minerals within US borders. Minerals such as copper, zinc and nickel could be extracted in greater abundance domestically with improved regulatory certainty. The extraction of these minerals would also generate a number of other crucial minerals for which we’re facing tight supplies. Copper ore, for example, contains rhenium, selenium and tellurium, along with small amounts of rare-earth elements. Zinc ore contains indium, germanium and cadmium.

But under the current minerals mining permitting process — which is marked by unnecessary delays and redundancies at the local, state and federal levels — it can take up to 10 years to secure approval to mine for these and countless other minerals in the United States. This is five times longer than it takes in countries with comparably stringent environmental standards, such as Australia and Canada. This policy pitfall has driven investment overseas, leading to a 13 percent drop in our nation’s share of global investments in metals mining over the past decade and an increased reliance on mineral imports.

Encouraging domestic mineral production and establishing secure mineral supply chains for manufacturers and the US military would put our national security back into our own hands. The bipartisan National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013, introduced by US Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., would address this national challenge. The bill would ensure a predictable and streamlined permitting process that maintains strict environmental protections, making the US more attractive to investment in mining and facilitating the development of minerals needed across our security spectrum.

For the US, a stable and robust mineral supply is, and will continue to be, a strong pillar supporting the nation’s global competitiveness, a key driver of its technological prowess and the foundation of countless national defenses. Allies and competitors alike have enacted policies to address minerals security, and it’s time for the United States to do the same. A reformed permitting process for minerals mines is a long-overdue first step.

Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, which advocates on behalf of the US mining industry.

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