Op-ed: U.S. Isn’t Prepared to Meet Mineral, Metal Demands

Resource Type: Media Room

A new government report suggests we must revisit the regulatory regime that restricts hard rock mining in the United States. A surge in demand is coming for the minerals and metals needed in every sector of our economy, and we are woefully unprepared to meet it.

The problem is not a lack of domestic resources. We have them in spades. In fact, the U.S. possesses an estimated $6.2 trillion in minerals reserves. But we still import nearly $7 billion in minerals and metals each year. According to the U.S. Geological Survey's 2017 Mineral Commodity Summary, America is import-dependent for half or all of 50 key mineral commodities. And this import dependency is only poised to grow.

Our regulatory policies governing hard rock mining are now so obstructive that they almost guarantee mining investment goes elsewhere, despite our vast resources. There’s no better example of this regulatory straightjacket than our mine permitting process. Gaining the necessary approvals to open a new U.S. mine can take seven to 10 years, and often longer. This is absurd and unnecessary.

In Canada and Australia, nations with similar environmental standards, the mine permitting process takes just two to three years on average. We can and should do better. Revising our permitting process and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive. Commonsense reforms are available, if we choose to act.

President Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan highlights the urgency of reform. The Trump administration has already signaled its interest in using American-made materials, where possible, to rebuild or expand our roads, airports, railroads, and pipelines. Spending billions overseas on zinc, iron ore, and copper, among other metals, wouldn’t fit that American-made goal. But our mines and mills can meet this need — and provide good-paying jobs — if we level the playing field for our producers by reforming our regulatory policies.

Infrastructure is just a small part of the coming demand, however. Our technology-driven economy has an increasingly voracious appetite for minerals and metals. Take the batteries used in all of our smart phones and a growing number of our cars. The electric vehicle (EV) revolution is the perfect example of the challenge and opportunity before us.

EVs are no longer a technology on the horizon. They’re here. Consider that between 2010 and 2015, just 1 million EVs were sold globally. However, more than 2 million EVs are expected to be sold in 2020 alone. Forecasters are increasingly bullish, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that EVs will capture 50 percent of the new car market by 2040. Wood Mackenzie thinks EVs could offset 20 percent of global oil demand by 2035.

The emergence of EVs has coincided with major advancements in lithium-ion batteries. And while these batteries have gotten better and cheaper, demand for lithium and other building block minerals and metals — like nickel, graphite and cobalt — has soared.

For example, just one battery for a high-end Tesla uses as much lithium carbonate as roughly 10,000 cell phones. And global lithium demand is on track to quadruple by 2025. It’s no surprise that Goldman Sachs has called lithium the new gasoline.

We may well be sleepwalking from a dependence on OPEC toward a similar dependence on foreign minerals and metals suppliers. Fortunately, some are aware of this, and are working to do something about it.

Legislation recently introduced in the Senate by Dean Heller, R-Nevada, and in the House of Representatives by Mark Amodei, R-Nevada, provides some commonsense reforms for the mine permitting process that will reduce duplication and improve efficiencies.

The time is now to refocus on our hard rock mining policies. Our economy and our security could well depend on doing so. Congress should act immediately to make the United States becomes a more attractive destination for mining investment and production.

Hal Quinn is president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Mining Association (nma.org), which advocates on behalf of America's mining and minerals resources.

Read the full op-ed in The Spectrum here.

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