October 11, 2019
October is Manufacturing Month. The manufacturing industry plays ...
President Obama recently filed a challenge with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against China’s export restrictions on rare earth minerals, marking the second time since 2009 the United States sanctioned a WTO case against the country over mineral export restrictions.
This news brings to light not only our nation’s import dependence for rare earths, but the vital role these elements play as a cornerstone of modern technology. Tantamount to our dependence on rare earths to foster innovation is the need for a more efficient mining permitting process to encourage investment in U.S. mining and greater self-sufficiency in meeting our mineral needs.
Rare earth minerals play an important role in our nation’s economy. Nearly every American industry—from defense to high-tech to automotive—is impacted by supply chain restrictions on rare earths. The U.S. Department of Energy called attention to this issue in the summary of its most recent Critical Materials Strategy, where it indicated that supply challenges for five rare earth metals–dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium—may affect future development of clean energy technology.
While we use rare earths to develop wind turbines, solar panels and hybrid cars, the U.S. military relies on these critical elements to support technologies including radar, optics, jet-fighter engines, antimissile systems, range finders and laser-guidance systems.
Rare earth elements are undoubtedly essential to innovation, our economy and national security. However, as China tightens its exports, we must examine the inefficiencies within our own system that has prohibited development of a domestic supply chain for these and other minerals so important to our economy. The United States’ archaic mining permitting process currently takes as much as five times longer than processes in other countries. Amidst theses inefficiencies process, investment, production and jobs are being driven away from America, evidenced by our loss of share of global metals mining investment, which fell from 21 percent in 1993 to 8 percent today.
America needs to establish an efficient mining permitting process that encourages investment and stimulates economic growth. To choose not to would be a step in the wrong direction that will affect U.S. innovation and the economy as a whole.
Dr. Courtney Young is the Department Head & Lewis S. Prater Distinguished Professor, Metallurgical & Materials Engineering, at Montana Tech of The University of Montana.