Last month, President Trump took an important step toward ensuring America’s long-term national security by signing an executive order to improve access to America’s metals and minerals. The order fundamentally changes U.S. policy toward critical minerals and will assure the United States has access to these materials for use in every major defense system.
It will also create jobs and strengthen the domestic industrial base by reenergizing the U.S. mining industry and the value-added manufacturers who turn mining products into metals, alloys, and eventually consumer products and even weapon systems.
The United States possesses an estimated $6.2 trillion in mineral reserves but still imports nearly $7 billion worth of them each year.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s 2017 Mineral Commodity Summary found that the United States is now heavily import-dependent for 50 key minerals. This has an outsized impact on America’s military, which requires 750,000 tons of minerals each year to stay up and running. That includes everything from the lanthanum used in night-vision goggles and beryllium in optical tracking equipment to the nickel used in body armor and the silver in Apache helicopters.
With the United States home to such an abundance of natural resources, one would think that the nation could simply dig its way out of the problem.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. America’s mine approval process has grown incredibly slow and cumbersome due to an archaic and outdated permitting system. It now takes as much as 10 years to permit a new mine in the United States.
In contrast, Canada and Australia — two countries that maintain comparable environmental standards — can clear new mine approvals in a mere two to three years. Such bureaucratic challenges remain particularly frustrating for mineral-rich states, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has repeatedly introduced legislation to improve mine permitting procedures.
It’s encouraging that President Trump sought to address this issue during his first year in office. Specifically, his executive order directs the federal government to “reduce the Nation’s vulnerability to disruptions in the supply of critical minerals, which constitutes a strategic vulnerability for the security and prosperity of the United States.”
In an approach similar to the regulatory streamlining urged by Murkowski, the order aims to increase “private sector domestic exploration, production, recycling, and reprocessing of critical minerals.” Doing so will “reduce our dependence on imports, preserve our leadership in technological innovation, support job creation, improve our national security and balance of trade, and enhance the technological superiority and readiness of our Armed Forces, which are among the Nation’s most significant consumers of critical minerals.”
The timing of the executive order is also telling about the results of a forthcoming defense industrial base assessment. Last year, the Trump administration embarked on a study of America’s industrial base, with a report due in April 2018.
The investigation has likely elevated concerns in the West Wing over America’s increasing reliance on China and Russia for many of the raw inputs needed to produce fighter jets, engines, radar, missile defense systems, satellites, precision munitions, and other key technologies. Though the study is ongoing, the White House has apparently already recognized the nexus between access to critical materials and ensuring our national security.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has initiated work to increase access to key strategic materials. In response to the president’s executive order, his department is taking steps to produce the first nationwide geological and topographical survey of the United States in modern history. He’s also marshaling the various bureaus of the Interior Department to begin work on identifying immediate domestic sources of critical minerals.
America’s mining companies will undoubtedly be encouraged by this. And such confidence could also lead to greater investment — including increased access to private sector capital. And if this results in new mines and new sources of strategic materials, that will be a good thing, since mining supports good-paying, middle-class jobs in many states. It also supports downstream manufacturers and consumer goods: a 2014 study indicated that 90 percent of manufacturing executives were concerned about their ability to obtain needed materials in a timely fashion.
In the long run, it’s simply not practical for the United States to remain heavily dependent on overseas suppliers for dozens of key minerals. It leaves the nation vulnerable to disruptions from unfriendly sources. Congress and the administration should proceed with all deliberate haste to identify domestic sources of the metals and minerals needed for national defense — and ensure that America begins to extract more of its own vast troves of these resources. Otherwise, continuing a dependency on other countries poses troubling national security consequences.
Jeff A. Green is president and founder of J.A. Green & Company, a bipartisan government relations firm based in Washington DC.