By Brigadier General (Retired) John Adams
July 1, 2019 - As the recent trade war with China has escalated, Beijing has implied that it may retaliate by withholding rare earth minerals. Such a strategic vulnerability — and America’s alarmingly high reliance on imported minerals and metals — is now in the spotlight for all the world to see.
China’s rare earth threat underscores just how perilous U.S. mineral import reliance has become. While rare earths are currently the focus, America’s overall reliance on imports of these minerals is indicative of a far larger problem.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. is now 100% import-reliant for 18 minerals and metals, and 50 percent or more reliant for another 30. Despite ever-growing demand for these minerals and metals in defense technologies-such as stealth and night vision technologies-or consumer goods and green energy technology, U.S. import reliance has doubled over the past 25 years. Notwithstanding the nation’s vast mineral reserves, mining investment in the U.S., and production of essential minerals, has steadily declined.
The atrophying of the nation’s materials supply chain shouldn’t just be chalked up to the march of globalization and large-scale economic integration. It’s also the product of a decades-long adversarial approach to domestic mining that can be seen in federal land-withdrawals and a mine permitting process that now regularly stretches to 10 years or more.
Modern, responsible, and well-regulated mining should be encouraged in the U.S., not pushed aside. To meet the material needs of our advanced tech, manufacturing, energy, and defense sectors, America will need almost exponential growth in the mining and refining of a vast array of minerals and metals, many of which can be produced here at home. While materials recycling should be a key part of meeting this demand, it’s hardly a cure-all.
It’s past time for the U.S. to place strategic importance on mining and the greater materials supply chain. China is already years ahead in this industrial arms race, prioritizing mining as a cog of its industrial policy. For example, China is the top resource holder for 10 of the minerals and materials vital to wind, solar, and battery technologies.
A new report from the Commerce Department stresses the urgency of action. It warns that the U.S. has become “heavily dependent” on foreign sources for 31 of the 35 minerals recently designated as “critical” by the Department of the Interior.
While the U.S. has fallen far behind, there are signs of hope. Bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, The Minerals Security Act, is an important step forward in responding to China’s dominance and beginning to right our supply chain. The legislation would streamline a variety of mine permitting and regulatory processes currently sapping U.S. mining competitiveness. Their leadership in beginning to address this important issue deserves strong, bipartisan backing.
The technologies of tomorrow-whether they’re energy technologies or the defense applications that keep us safe-are more materials-intensive than what they’re replacing. It’s essential we build a supply chain to support them. Failing to do so won’t just be an economic missed opportunity. It would be a geopolitical blunder that undermines our global leadership.
The time for decisive action to encourage domestic mining, and to rebuild our industrial base, has arrived.
Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John Adams served more than 30 years in command and staff assignments as an Army aviator, military intelligence officer, and foreign area officer in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. He is president of Guardian Six Consulting, with offices in Washington, D.C., and Gulf Breeze, Florida.