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Critical attention

December 21st, 2017

The U.S. embarks on a national strategy of greater self-reliance for critical minerals

by Greg Klein

A geopolitical absurdity on par with some aspects of Dr. Strangelove and Catch 22 can’t be reduced simply through an executive order from the U.S. president. But an executive order from the U.S. president doesn’t hurt. On December 20 Donald Trump called for a “federal strategy to ensure secure and reliable supplies of critical minerals.” The move came one day after the U.S. Geological Survey released the first comprehensive update on the subject since 1973, taking a thorough look—nearly 900-pages thorough—at commodities vital to our neighbour’s, and ultimately the West’s, well-being.

U.S. president Trump calls for a national strategy to reduce foreign dependence on critical minerals

The U.S. 5th Security Forces Squadron takes part in a
September exercise at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota.
(Photo: Senior Airman J.T. Armstrong/U.S. Air Force)

The study, Critical Mineral Resources of the United States, details 23 commodities deemed crucial due to their possibility of supply disruption with serious consequences. Many of them come primarily from China. Others originate in unstable countries or countries with a dangerous near-monopoly. For several minerals, the U.S. imports its entire supply.

They’re necessary for medicine, clean energy, transportation and electronics but maybe most worrisome, for national security. That last point prompted comments from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, whose jurisdiction includes the USGS. He formerly spent 23 years as a U.S. Navy SEAL officer.

“I commend the team of scientists at USGS for the extensive work put into the report, but the findings are shocking,” he stated. “The fact that previous administrations allowed the United States to become reliant on foreign nations, including our competitors and adversaries, for minerals that are so strategically important to our security and economy is deeply troubling. As both a former military commander and geologist, I know the very real national security risk of relying on foreign nations for what the military needs to keep our soldiers and our homeland safe.”

Trump acknowledged a number of domestic roadblocks to production “despite the presence of significant deposits of some of these minerals across the United States.” Among the challenges, he lists “a lack of comprehensive, machine-readable data concerning topographical, geological and geophysical surveys; permitting delays; and the potential for protracted litigation regarding permits that are issued.”

[Trump’s order also calls for] options for accessing and developing critical minerals through investment and trade with our allies and partners.

Trump ordered a national strategy to be outlined within six months. Topics will include recycling and reprocessing critical minerals, finding alternatives, making improved geoscientific data available to the private sector, providing greater land access to potential resources, streamlining reviews and, not to leave out America’s friends, “options for accessing and developing critical minerals through investment and trade with our allies and partners.”

Apart from economic benefits, such measures would “enhance the technological superiority and readiness of our armed forces, which are among the nation’s most significant consumers of critical minerals.”

In fact the USGS report finds several significant uses for most of the periodic table’s 92 naturally occurring elements. A single computer chip requires well over half of the table. Industrialization, technological progress and rising standards of living have helped bring about an all-time high in minerals demand that’s expected to keep increasing, according to the study.

“For instance, in the 1970s rare earth elements had few uses outside of some specialty fields, and were produced mostly in the United States. Today, rare earth elements are integral to nearly all high-end electronics and are produced almost entirely in China.”

The USGS tracks 88 minerals regularly but also works with the country’s Defense Logistics Agency on a watch list of about 160 minerals crucial to national security. This week’s USGS study deems the critical 23 as follows:

  • antimony
  • barite
  • beryllium
  • cobalt
  • fluorite or fluorspar
  • gallium
  • germanium
  • graphite
  • hafnium
  • indium
  • lithium
  • manganese
  • niobium
  • platinum group elements
  • rare earth elements
  • rhenium
  • selenium
  • tantalum
  • tellurium
  • tin
  • titanium
  • vanadium
  • zirconium

A January 2017 USGS report listed 20 minerals for which the U.S. imports 100% of its supply. Several of the above critical minerals were included: fluorspar, gallium, graphite, indium, manganese, niobium, rare earths, tantalum and vanadium.

This comprehensive work follows related USGS reports released in April, including a breakdown of smartphone ingredients to illustrate the range of countries and often precarious supply chains that supply those materials. That report quoted Larry Meinert of the USGS saying, “With minerals being sourced from all over the world, the possibility of supply disruption is more critical than ever.”

As both a former military commander and geologist, I know the very real national security risk of relying on foreign nations for what the military needs to keep our soldiers and our homeland safe.—Ryan Zinke,
U.S. Secretary of the Interior

David S. Abraham has been a prominent advocate of a rare minerals strategy for Western countries. But in an e-mail to the Washington Post, the author of The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age warned that Trump’s action could trigger a partisan battle. He told the Post that Republicans tend to use the issue to loosen mining restrictions while Democrats focus on “building up human capacity to develop supply chains rather than the resources themselves.”

Excessive and redundant permitting procedures came under criticism in a Hill op-ed published a few days earlier. Jeff Green, a Washington D.C.-based defence lobbyist and advocate of increased American self-reliance for critical commodities, argued that streamlining would comprise “a positive first step toward strengthening our economy and our military for years to come.”

In a bill presented to U.S. Congress last March, Rep. Duncan Hunter proposed incentives for developing domestic resources and supply chains for critical minerals. His METALS Act (Materials Essential to American Leadership and Security) has been in committee since.

Speaking to ResourceClips.com at the time, Abraham doubted the success of Hunter’s bill, while Green spoke of “a totally different dynamic” in the current administration, showing willingness to “invest in America to protect our national security and grow our manufacturing base.”

Update: Read about Jeff Green’s response to the U.S. national strategy.

“Shocking” USGS report details 23 minerals critical to America’s economy and security

December 19th, 2017

This story has been expanded and moved here.