Cheap Seats 2019
By Rich Trzupek
Last month the Energy Information Administration announced that the United States exported more crude oil and petroleum products than it imported during the week ending Nov. 30, 2018. This was the first time that happened since 1991, continuing a 10-year trend of growing American energy independence.
But, while the nation appears to have turned a corner in the energy sector, a crisis has grown in another strategic sector of the economy. It’s a crisis that has developed almost unnoticed, except by a very few who understand just how serious and dangerous the situation is and how it grows more serious and dangerous each day. America is becoming alarmingly dependent on other nations for its supply of many of the strategic metals and minerals that we depend on to make modern-day life possible, to construct high-tech military systems and perform hundreds of other tasks that are vital to the health and prosperity of the nation.
The term “strategic metals and minerals” covers a lot of ground. On one hand, it includes relatively abundant metals like manganese, which is essential to producing high-quality alloys of steel. On the other hand, it also includes elements like yttrium; a “rare-earth” element that – as the term suggests – is found in small concentrations in isolated pockets in the earth’s crust. Among other things, yttrium is a critical component of various anti-cancer drugs.
What ties this tale together is that the United States is increasingly dependent on foreign powers, and in many cases actual or potential adversaries, for its supply of strategic metals and minerals. Geologist Dr. Ned Mamula and writer Ann Bridges are co-authors of the recently published book “Groundbreaking! America’s New Quest for Mineral Independence.” In it, Mamula and Bridges outline the nature of the problem in detail. It’s an important book that covers a vital topic that too few Americans, and particularly those Americans in a position to influence national policy, even know exists.
Broadly speaking, Mamula and Bridges highlight the following important aspects of the growing strategic metal and mineral crisis:
1) There are a lot of them. As of 2017, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), America is dependent on imports of 64 strategic metals and minerals in quantities over 25 percent of our demand, and of 30 strategic metals and minerals in quantities over 50 percent of demand.
2) The supply chain is not reliable. The People’s Republic of China and Russia provide a disproportionate and potentially crippling percentage of these strategic metals and minerals. According to USGS data, the US is 100 percent dependent on the PRC for several of these strategic materials, and primarily dependent of the PRC and Russia for many more. Both nations are surely aware that undermining the United States economy by pulling the plug on the supply of one or more these materials would have negative consequences to their own nations. Yet, that does not rule out either choosing to utilize a weapon we have chosen to hand them.
3) It matters. Quoting from Groundbreaking: A 2016 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report stated the obvious as it warned that rare earths are a “bedrock national security issue,” which might be too abstract of a concept for most observers. More meaningful to the casual observer is the possibility rare earths will one day soon become part of U.S.-China trade and tariff discussions, but hopefully not as part of a trade war, or the object of an embargo as happened to Japan in 2010. An author very familiar with the rare earth issue astutely noted, “unfortunately, the biggest risk to launching a trade war against the People’s Republic of China comes from the most obscure of imported goods”—rare earth elements.
4) It’s fixable. The problem is not rooted in the concept that the United States does not have sufficient mineral and metal wealth to fill our raw material needs. As Mamula and Bridges document, we have a plethora of both, primarily in the rich geological formation known to geologists as America’s Western Cordillera. There lies an abundance of metal and mineral resources that America could – if it so choose – use to fill its own demand and sell to the rest of the world as well.
5) The obstacle is ourselves. We clearly have the resources. We also have the ability to extract those resources as economically and safely as is possible, with the least environmental impact. The fact that we do not choose to do so can be attributed to a few delusions that are unique to successful, wealthy and comfortable societies like 21st century America: a) every internal risk – environmental, health-based or otherwise – is blown out of all proportion; b) people become willfully ignorant of the benefits of modern technology while they obsess over the supposed risks involved with sustaining that technology and choose to dismiss any connection between the two; and c) to the extent that infinitesimal risks might exist, people are more than willing to export those risks to nations far less suited to dealing with them than the United States.
We could, if we chose, mine and process all of the metals and minerals needed to keep our modern, ultra-efficient society humming along. The fact that we do not make that choice is further proof the narcissistic, navel-gazing nature of America today.