The Environmental Protection Agency is again drawing the ire of environmentalists, this time by lifting an Obama-era ban on development of Alaska’s Pebble Mine. It's part of a dramatic pivot driven by the Trump administration, with rule changes, proposals and executive orders all intended to realign U.S. public lands policy with the White House’s development-minded approach.
If the changes are implemented successfully, the administration has the opportunity to create much-needed jobs in the western half of the country. And if the Pebble Mine is any example, it could finally unchain the United States from what has been a dangerous dependency on critical mineral imports.
The proposed Pebble Mine in southwestern Alaska would bring to market 6.44 billion metric tons of copper, gold, molybdenum and silver, four commodities in the group known as “critical and strategic minerals.” These minerals are critical for the manufacture of goods as varied as medical devices, agricultural products, and electronics, and contribute to industries that added $2.78 trillion to gross domestic product last year. Critical and strategic minerals get their designation because they’re not just economically vital; they’re also essential to national defense. The Pentagon maintains 37 mineral commodities as part of the Defense National Stockpile.
As recently as 1990, the United States was the world’s largest producer of mineral resources. Geologically speaking, we’re rich. The American West hosts one of the largest, most diverse and most unusually concentrated mineral belts in the world, extending from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean. That geological terrain hosts world-class deposits of chromium, copper, fluorine, gold, molybdenum, platinum and uranium, to name just a few.
But quite a different trend has emerged over the last three decades. Earlier this year, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that, of 88 important minerals they track, the United States is more than 25 percent import-dependent for 62 of them. For 20 of those minerals, the United States is 100 percent reliant on imports. Many of those 20 key minerals are absolutely critical to the economy and national defense.
The risks are underscored when one considers just how reliant the country has become on imports specifically from Russia and China. China, by far the world’s largest source of minerals, has already used its rare earth mineral wealth as a diplomatic weapon. As Chinese statesman Deng Xiaoping said in 1992: “The Middle East has its oil, China has rare earth.”
Resources can be powerful economic weapons. Consider the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, prompted by international support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. In retaliation, Arab countries cut production and prohibited exports to a number of countries. Oil prices more than quadrupled, consumers and corporations had trouble accessing supplies and the global economy raced toward recession. Only after significant concessions were made by the United States and its allies was the embargo lifted by the oil cartel.
The embargo pushed industry and government agencies to launch ambitious research and resource development programs that developed new technologies and unleashed our current fossil-fuel abundance. We shouldn’t wait for a similar precipitous event involving critical minerals. Quite simply, U.S. minerals policy needs to return to its founding in the “conservation ethic.”
In his memoir, Gifford Pinchot, the founding chief of the U.S. Forest Service, defined conservation as “the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.” In the last few decades, lands policy has instead tipped toward "preservation" — the view that resources have more inherent value than productive value. The tangible results of this shift, in terms of exploring and mining minerals, have been excessively long permitting timelines, land withdrawals and capitulation to environmental opposition. Federal lands management agencies are failing in their obligation to be wise stewards of the public domain.
Solutions are in the pipeline. The president has launched an ambitious new approach to resources and Congress isn’t far behind. Earlier this year, members of the Nevada and Idaho congressional delegations introduced in both chambers the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act, which would charge the Interior and Agriculture departments with more efficiently developing critical and strategic minerals on federal lands. More substantive policy reforms to expand domestic minerals mining and production could and should follow. Informed, data-driven consideration of our mineral resources would allow the United States to better reconcile its economic needs with its devotion to environmental protection.
America is blessed with expansive mineral deposits and a more secure mineral future is within reach. Conscientious policy reforms to cultivate a smaller, less intrusive and more focused government minerals policy can successfully reconcile economic growth with environmental protection, empower the marketplace and shift the United States away from over-reliance on imports of critical and strategic minerals, especially from China and Russia.