It might seem hard to fathom after some of the recent election rhetoric, but according to a survey of global manufacturing executives, the U.S. is poised to overtake China by 2020 as the world’s most competitive manufacturing nation. Advanced manufacturing technologies, high worker productivity, and low energy costs are all helping to drive this ascent.
Despite such welcome optimism about America’s manufacturing sector, however, there’s still a glaring vulnerability; one that could unravel this progress if we don’t give it the attention it deserves.
Our increasingly high-tech manufacturing sector is using more and more minerals and metals for everything from cellphones and televisions to electric vehicle batteries and life-saving medical devices. While we are using more of these minerals and metals, we are also becoming increasingly import-dependent for them.
According to the 2017 Minerals Commodity Summaries from the U.S. Geological Survey, America is now 100 percent import-dependent for 20 minerals and more than 50 percent import-dependent for an additional 30 minerals. But despite alarm bells from many industries — including the full breadth of the manufacturing sector — the situation has gone from bad to worse.
A survey conducted by Edelman Berland of 400 U.S. manufacturing executives found that 90 percent of them are concerned about supply disruptions for the minerals and metals they increasingly rely upon. Such a vulnerable supply chain for the raw materials that make U.S. manufacturing possible is both dangerous and unnecessary.
Growing import dependence for minerals and metals is not the result of unlucky geology. Few countries are as blessed as the United States when it comes to mineral and metal reserves. Rather, our regulatory approach to hard-rock mining is cutting into mining investment and production.
We possess an estimated $6.2 trillion in minerals reserves. Yet, we import nearly $7 billion in minerals and metals each year. It’s far past time we tackle this growing import dependency.
The obvious place to start is with revising our duplicative and obstructive mine-permitting process. Gaining a permit to open a new mine in the U.S. has become a comedy of errors. In Canada and Australia — nations with environmental safeguards very similar to our own — it takes two to three years on average to gain a permit for a new mine.
In the U.S., it takes seven to 10 years; often longer. Essentially, and despite our resource abundance, we also have an abundance of red tape. Thus, mining investment is fleeing.
If we revise our mine permitting process and base it on best practices that eliminate duplication, we can uphold our world-class environmental standards while also providing a regulatory environment that attracts mining investment.
Doing so would not only help increase U.S. minerals and metals production — providing a more robust and secure supply chain for our manufacturers —but would also generate tens of thousands of good, middle-class jobs in new American mines and mills.
This is not an impossible task. New legislation has already been introduced in both the House and Senate that provides necessary and desperately needed reform that the American people support. A new poll shows 65 percent of respondents favor shorter permitting times that provide more timely access to critical minerals and metals.
It’s an effort that deserves strong bipartisan support. President Trump recognizes the need for action and has called for expediting the permitting process for U.S. manufacturing facilities.
That’s a great first step, but unless this executive initiative is extended to include U.S. mining as well, we will have wasted an opportunity to address the core vulnerabilities in the supply chain of manufacturing industries.
Revising our obstructionist mine-permitting process to allow a more robust and secure domestic minerals and metals supply chain would do just that. Greater domestic minerals and metals production — and the good jobs that go with it — is decidedly in the national interest.
Hal Quinn is president of the National Mining Association (NMA)
Read the full op-ed in The Hill here.