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Oil and natural gas aren’t just fuels. They supply building blocks for pharmaceuticals; plastics in vehicle bodies, athletic helmets, and numerous other products; and complex composites in solar panels and wind turbine blades and nacelles. The USA was importing 65% of its petroleum in 2005, creating serious national security concerns. But fracking helped cut imports to 40% and the US now exports oil and gas.
Today’s vital raw materials foundation also includes exotic minerals like gallium, germanium, rare earth elements and platinum group metals. For the USA, they are “critical” because they are required in thousands of applications; they become “strategic” when we don’t produce them in the United States.
They are essential for computers, medical imaging and diagnostic devices, night vision goggles, GPS and communication systems, television display panels, smart phones, jet engines, light-emitting diodes, refinery catalysts and catalytic converters, wind turbines, solar panels, long-life batteries and countless other applications. In 1954, the USA imported 100% of just eight vital minerals; in 1984, only eleven.
Today, in this technology-dominated world, the United States imports up to 100% of 35 far more critical materials. Twenty of them come 100% from China, others from Russia, and others indirectly from places where child labor, worker safety, human rights and environmental standards are nonexistent.
The situation is untenable and unsustainable. Literally every sector of the US economy, the nation’s defense, its energy and employment base, its living standards – all are dependent on sources, supply chains and transportation routes that are vulnerable to disruption under multiple scenarios.
Recognizing this, President Trump recently issued an executive order stating that federal policies would henceforth focus on reducing these vulnerabilities, in part by requiring that government agencies coordinate in publishing an updated analysis of critical nonfuel minerals; ensuring that the private sector have electronic access to up-to-date information on potential US and other alternative sources; and finding safe and environmentally sound ways to find, mine, reprocess and recycle critical minerals – emphasizing sources that are less likely to come from unfriendly nations, less likely to face disruption.
The order also requires that agencies prepare a detailed report on long-term strategies for reducing US reliance on critical minerals, assessing recycling and reprocessing progress, creating accessible maps of potentially mineralized areas, supporting private sector mineral exploration, and streamlining regulatory and permitting processes for finding, producing and processing domestic sources of these minerals.
Incredibly, the last report on critical minerals and availability issues was written in 1973, the year the first mobile telephone call was made. That inexcusable 45 years of neglect by multiple administrations and congresses dates back to the era of “revolutionary” Selectric typewriters and includes the appearance of desktop computers in 1975 and the first PC in 1981. (That PC had a whopping 16 KB of memory!)
As former geologist, Navy SEAL and military commander – and now Secretary of the Interior – Ryan Zinke has observed, allowing our nation to become so heavily “reliant on foreign nations, including our competitors and adversaries,” for so many strategic minerals “is deeply troubling.”
It’s actually far worse than “troubling” or “neglectful.” It involved a concerted, irresponsible, ill-considered effort to place hundreds of millions of acres in wilderness, wilderness study and other highly restrictive land use categories – often with the very deliberate intention of making their mineral prospects off limits, before anyone could assess the areas’ critical, strategic and other mineral potential.
The 1964 Wilderness Act had contemplated the preservation of a few million or tens of millions of acres of wild and primitive areas and natural habitats. To ensure informed land use decisions and access to vital mineral resources, Congress included “special provisions” that allowed prospecting and other activities in potential and designated wilderness areas – and required surveys by the US Geological Survey “on a planned, recurring basis,” to gather information about mineral or other resources – if such activities are carried out “in a manner compatible with the preservation of the wilderness environment.”
In 1978, while hiking with him, I asked then Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rupert Cutler how he could defend ignoring this clear statutory language and prohibiting all prospecting, surveys and other assessment work in wilderness and study areas. “I don’t think Congress should have enacted those provisions,” he replied, “so I’m not going to follow them.”
As of 1994, when geologist Courtland Lee and I prepared a detailed analysis, areas equal to Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming combined (427 million acres) were off limits to mineral exploration and development. The situation is far worse today – and because of processes unleashed by plate tectonic, volcanic and other geologic forces, these mountain, desert and other lands contain some of the most highly mineralized rock formations in North America, or even the entire world.
The deck was stacked: for wilderness, and against minerals and national security. This must not continue.
These areas must be surveyed and explored by government agencies and private sector companies. The needs of current and future generations are at stake. Failure to conduct systematic evaluations violates the most fundamental principles of national defense, national security and responsible government.
The Departments of Agriculture and the Interior should follow the special provisions of the Wilderness Act; abolish, modify or grant exceptions to existing motorized access restrictions; and ensure that areas are evaluated using airborne magnetic and other analytical equipment, assay gear carried in backpacks, truck-mounted and helicopter-borne drilling and coring rigs, and other sophisticated modern technologies.
This approach also complies with environmental and sustainability principles. It ensures that we can get vital strategic minerals from world class deposits on small tracts of land, instead of having to mine and process vast quantities of low quality ores. That protects most of our wild, scenic and wildlife areas – and modern techniques can then restore affected areas to natural conditions and high quality habitats.
Even ardent environmentalists should support this, because the renewable energy, high-tech future they want and promise depends on these minerals. For example, generating all US electricity (3.5 billion megawatt hours a year) from wind would require some 14 million 1.8 MW turbines, demanding some 8 billion tons of steel alloys and concrete, 2 million tons of neodymium, other rare earths, and vast amounts of cobalt, molybdenum and other minerals! Substituting photovoltaic solar panels for turbines would require arsenic, boron, cadmium, gallium, indium, molybdenum, selenium, silver, tellurium and titanium.
Backing up that electricity for seven windless or sunless days would require 700 million 100kw Tesla battery packs – and thus millions of tons of lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and cadmium! It’s absurd.
(The land use, habitat destruction, wildlife eradication and other impacts of large-scale renewable energy programs would be intolerable and unsustainable. Indeed, renewable energy programs on any scale make little sense. But my focus here is on the need for strategic minerals for these and all modern technologies.)
Bottom line: Every generation of computer, communication, energy, defense and other technologies requires new materials in new quantities – and thus renewed exploration, mining and processing.
The United States is the only country that locks up its strategic mineral resources. No sane, responsible nation risks or forecloses its energy, technology, economic, employment, defense and sustainability future. So it will be fascinating to see which legislators, judges and pressure groups vilify the activities proposed in the Trump executive order, government minerals report and this article.
Those that try to block progress in these areas should be named and shamed (along with their financial supporters) – and their actions made key issues in election campaigns and social responsibility discussions. Perhaps they should be the first to get shut off from electricity, cars, computers, cell phones, medical care, social media and other modern benefits that depend on petroleum and critical minerals.
Let the Interior Department know your views on these vital issues. And maybe take a page from the Cutler-illegal immigrants playbook: Become a sanctuary county or state, simply ignore troublesome laws, regulations and court dictates – and just initiate your own exploration and mining programs.