Modern societies require minerals, and mining

Congressional bills would end US mining and leave USA dependent on foreign critical materials

Paul Driessen and Ned Mamula

When OPEC imposed its 1973 embargo, the United States was just over 40% dependent on foreign sources for its oil. But sudden price hikes and shortages severely disrupted families and businesses.

Today the USA relies on foreign sources for 100% of 14 minerals considered to be “critical” for modern technologies and societies, and 50-96% for 19 other “critical” minerals; only two are in the 14-25% dependency range, an updated report from the US Department of the Interior (DOI) cautions.

A Navy SEAL’s gear contains at least 23 of these minerals. Your mobile phone has over a dozen. So do wind turbines and solar panels. In fact, nearly all modern defense, aerospace, medical, transportation, communication, computer, energy and long-life battery technologies require several of these 35 critical minerals. Manufacturing and high-tech industries would grind to a halt without them. China is a dominant supplier for many of them, but other sources are also problematical, for different reasons.

A major reason for this heavy reliance is that, over the past several decades, America’s hardrock mining industry has dwindled and slowed to a crawl, been put almost on life support, just as the need for more critical minerals began to explode – in response to amazing 21st century technology-driven applications for metals and other materials that had never before been needed, looked for or mined in the USA.

This is in large part because some of the most highly mineralized ore bodies in North America (or the world) are found in western US and Alaskan areas that have been deemed off limits to mineral exploration and development, under multiple land use and environmental restrictions. World-class deposits of cobalt, copper, iron, lead, nickel, rare earths, tin, titanium, uranium, zinc and other minerals vital to the American economy and national defense are almost certainly located on those and other US lands.

However, exploration and mining are banned or heavily restricted on the vast majority of those lands. In fact, when the last detailed analysis was conducted (see pages 12-15), 427 million acres were closed to mineral exploration and development. That’s 59% of all federally owned or managed lands in the United States – an area equal to Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Montana and Wyoming combined!

The situation is far worse today, 25 years later. And even when areas are technically or officially “available” for evaluation, exploration and mining, state and federal agencies often refuse to issue permits, while environmental groups routinely file lawsuits to delay, block or bankrupt activities.

There is no valid reason mining should be impeded at this scale, especially since it so affects our national security. Of course, some of these areas truly are so special and spectacular that they should remain closed. However, it is absurd to suggest that a single mine (or core drilling site) in a wilderness or wilderness study area the size of Rhode Island, Delaware or Connecticut would permanently destroy its “pristine” qualities – even though it may have been mined or timbered a century ago, when there were no environmental laws.

Mother Nature restored those areas to their current “pristine” state. Modern laws, regulations, technologies, procedures and practices ensure that areas will be explored, mined and restored properly today.

Accommodation and compromise are clearly needed. But with most anti-mining factions that is never an option. They are not content merely to keep US coal, oil and natural gas off limits. They want nearly all lands permanently closed to mining – and “keep it in the ground” policies applied even to minerals essential for national defense, entire industries, millions of jobs, medical and Silicon Valley technologies, iPhones, and even the “next-era, clean, green, renewable” energy future they insist we can and must have.

Compounding these problems, some of the critical minerals we are forced to import are mined in countries where child labor, fair wages, workplace health and safety, environmental and other standards are unenforced or nonexistent. Vast areas are ripped open to get at minerals; tailings and muck are dumped wherever it’s convenient; parents and even children are threatened daily by cave-ins and exposed constantly to toxic chemicals; injury and death are common; and land and habitat restoration is neither required nor contemplated. Any US or other Western company operating like this would be closed down, and its executives jailed.

Of course, those odious regimes make critical minerals far easier and cheaper to produce in Congo, Baotou, China or other easily ignored places than would be the case in the USA, where modern health, safety, ethical and environmental standards properly prevail. China’s rare earths industry produces well over 20 million tons of toxic wastes per year – dumping them in a massive contaminated lake.

One has to wonder: Where are those Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Sierra Club, news media and congressional “social justice” champions who work themselves into a lather over “blood diamonds,” clothing “sweatshops” and US mining? Are environmental and human rights travesties irrelevant in their eyes, when iPhones, wind turbines, solar panels and Tesla cars are involved?

A war, trade restriction or embargo could easily and disastrously disrupt nearly every segment of US industry and society to a far greater extent and for far longer than the 1973 oil embargo did. However, globalist pundits and “experts” assure us, if that were to happen, the USA and world would certainly “adapt in the long run.” Well, yes.

But exactly how long would that “long run” continue? What would happen to our defense and other technologies in the meantime? To our living standards, healthcare system and millions of jobs? Would all those anti-mining factions suddenly just go silent – and let America launch a new Manhattan Project to find and develop new deposits at breakneck speed, without regard for environmental impacts?

America’s sole existing light rare earth elements mine is in Mountain Pass, California. Closed because compliance with US laws and regulations made it too expensive to compete on the world stage, it is now partly owned by a China-affiliated company, which sends the ores to China for processing!

In the event of a crisis, would our government seize the mine and start processing its ores without regard to costs, acid leachate contamination or pollution from mine tailings and processing wastes, since we’d have no time to develop or implement environmentally acceptable processes? Would courts even allow it?

Immediate corrective actions are needed. Thankfully, DOI officials are doing exactly that – taking small but vital steps toward a Declaration of Minerals Independence. They are working with other federal agencies and their state and local counterparts, and investigating ways the USA can produce more critical minerals sooner and in necessary quantities. Ideas include streamlining permit processes and extracting minerals from secondary and unconventional sources, such as co-products of primary mineral mining; reprocessing coal ash and abandoned mine tailings; and recycling minerals from discarded equipment.

But now, certain members of Congress, who have shunned mining and ignored critical mineral import dependency, have introduced House bill H.R. 2975 and Senate bill S.1386 to “reform” the 1872 Mining Law. They claim the law “gives away” federal minerals and seek to impose hefty royalties on mineral extraction. In reality, they would just make mining even more costly and globally uncompetitive.

Mining companies already pay billions in taxes and wages, and 10-15% of zero minerals extraction is zero. The bills would just lock up more minerals and give away US jobs, security and technologies.

Mining Law “reform” proponents also claim the 1872 statute is antiquated, has never been amended and allows unfettered access to sensitive lands with no environmental rules. That too is a deliberate falsehood. Every new environmental review, water, air and reclamation law amended the 1872 law and applies to all US mining operations. The bills are just a clever way to eviscerate the 1872 law and ban hardrock mining.

America needs incentives, streamlined permitting and tax certainty to explore for and mine our abundant critical mineral endowment, to benefit our high-tech economy, national defense, employment and living standards. Congress must help in this effort – not create new roadblocks.

It is time to recognize that environmental responsibility is woven into the fabric of today’s laws, regulations and minerals industry. There is no legitimate reason for draconian Mining Law reformation, especially if those changes would ensure that we import more critical minerals from Congo and China.

Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org) and author of books and articles on energy, minerals, human rights, sustainability and the environment. Ned Mamula, Ph.D., is a geologist and Adjunct Scholar in Geosciences at the Cato Institute. His new book is titled “Groundbreaking! America’s New Quest for Mineral Independence.

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39 thoughts on “Modern societies require minerals, and mining

  1. The green blob opposes industrial society, preferring some sort of Arcadian Socialism, with a “return to a simple life”. They admire the Amish, and are callous that that level of farming would result in mass starvation of urban populations. It would not be a bug, but a feature.
    As their program is mostly a fantasy, any real world constraints do not affect their vision of a green Nirvana.

    • “The green blob opposes industrial society”

      But they DEMAND all the fancy gadgets that come from modern technology. The green blob just can’t seem to grasp the fact that these gadgets require minerals, especially the rare earths whose ores need to be dug up from the ground and refined. Where’s the energy coming from to complete this task? Sure as hell isn’t a windmill.

    • To be fair, they admire the Amish for those of us not fortunate enough to be “woke”. The “woke” will get to continue to have their luxuries… well I’m pretty sure of that anyway.

    • IMHO they are merely ignorant of what they wish for. They are dreaming of unbroken egg omelets.

      • Yes. Even when I was growing up, most people could not even begin to describe how a television actually works, and what must be done in order to make one. The ignorance that arises from specialization has only increased since then, IMO, and most people eschew the sciences and engineering during their education.
        I loved Chemistry from an early age, probably because of my parents, while not actually realizing that I was living in a country dominated by those that despised science, its origins, and where it could take us. The English author C.P. Snow wrote about such things.

        • Watch the film The Flight of the Phoenix, by Elleston Trevor (1964 or so don’t know if the newer ones live up to the original). Who could even fix anything broken in today’s airplane?

    • As a lifelong miner, I am glad we’re not destroying our country mining radioactive and rare Earth’s. We can let the rest of the world destroy it’s lands for the rush to profit, and when they run out or contaminate themselves out of the industry, we’ll be sitting pretty with technology to safely mine our intact reserves.

  2. “….Today the USA relies on foreign sources for 100% of 14 minerals considered to be “critical” for modern technologies and societies, and 50-96% for 19 other “critical” minerals….”

    That may not be an issue. If a foreign country can produce raw materials much cheaper than you can, it would be foolish and uneconomic to insist on sourcing your own supply and a higher cost.

    What you need to do is a risk analysis. Is the source country friendly or not? Could it be persuaded or forced to stop supplying the US – or another friendly nation which may have an impact on you? if so, how easily or rapidly can you obtain alternative supplies? Is it cost-effective to keep the infrastructure in place to be able to rapidly ramp up local supply?

    All these questions, and many more, need to be answered – and probably have been. Strategic supply studies are a basic requirement for national defence. But you need more of a justification for ramping up local mineral extraction than “we currently rely on foreign supplies”….

    • When it can get away with it, China is more than willing to put the squeeze on. link In fact, we’ve already had an example of China cutting off the supply of strategic minerals. link

      It would be wise to be in a position where China wouldn’t even think of trying to screw us over.

      • If another country is foolish enough to supply you with items below cost, you would be foolish not to take advantage of that.

        Of course you should be aware that they may want to put the squeeze on. And you should plan for that. Preferably by having multiple sources of supply. But I don’t think that saying you won’t trade with anyone because they might withdraw the supply is the best way to go ahead…

        • The best way to ensure the lowest cost from a foreign nation is not to “NEED” their materials in the first place.
          The best way to ensure you pay more than you should is to “DEPEND” on that foreign nation for the material supply as the only source.

        • Dogy: I am with CommieBob here. You have articulated liberal economic theory very well. And, if the world were composed of small commercial republics, you would be correct.

          But the world is not like that. The world has lots of large, hostile, authoritarian states. And, CommieBob is right. It behooves us to not leave hostages to fate.

          Pray for peace. Prepare for War.

          Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in the “De re militari” (390 C.E.): “Qui desiderat pacem, bellum praeparat; nemo provocare ne offendere audet quem intelliget superiorem esse pugnaturem”. (Whosoever desires peace prepares for war; no one provokes, nor dares to offend, those who they know know to be superior in battle.)

    • Who would do that analysis? During the Obama years the DOD did an analysis that determined CLIMATE CHANGE was an existential threat to the US military. When it is political, it is not a valid analysis.

      From a nationalistic perspective, I think the US should have sufficient stockpiled necessary minerals of the types mentioned to last as long as it would take to get US source mining operations and production up to the required capacity. The only analysis necessary is to determine the length of time to get production to the required level and hence how much to stockpile. Maybe use the NSA to do the analysis.

      China intentionally flooded the market with rare earths to eliminate production around the world. That is their MO. The US has the minerals, ability and capacity to be independent. It is time we became so.

      BTW, do that then withdraw all of our troops from around the world. Maintain the navy and ensure a sound missile defense of North America and build the MILITARY base on the moon for defensive purposes.

      Imagine the US standard of living after we stop playing the role of the policeman of the world.

    • The problem with that thought is: Our supply of critical mineral X gets cut off today by a hostile country (or politician), how long will it take a US based mine to find, get the permits and start pulling mineral X out of ground controlled by a US company then how long to get a smelter in operation to smelt it?

  3. No amount of sound logic nor common sense will change the mind of a believer [in AGW].

    These people have faith.

  4. The other issue with critical minerals is China fighting back against tariffs, which tariffs are designed to level the import/export playing field, by restricting the export of rare earth elements to the USA. As a mineral exploration geologist I am certain all of these can be found in the USA and neighboring friendly nations, and can be produced at reasonable cost and in needed amounts. The Green New Deal notwithstanding, it’s time to call the bluff of China.

    • Trump may be getting ready to impose more tariffs on China. He was complaining yesterday that China and gone back on a deal to purchase U.S. farm products. Trump said he had about $300 billion more in tariffs he could impose.

      It appears there is a big division in the Chinese leadership. Apparently Xi made a trade agreement with Trump, and then pulled back because of objections from other Chinese leaders. Somebody lost some face in there somewhere.

      Whoever is leading China should know that Trump is going to hold your feet to the fire. You have been gouging the United States out of hundreds of billions of dollars a year and that is now going to stop. A level playing field is the only acceptable outcome of negotiations. And that goes for all the other nations who have ridiculous trade imbalances with the U.S. We want fair trade and a level playing field for everyone.

  5. Remember the circa 1970’s bumper sticker.
    “Ban Mining Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark”.
    As a geologist friend used to say:
    “Take a look round and try and find something that did not come out of a mine, or was made by other things that came out out of a mine”.
    This is a major problem with modern Kakistocracies.
    The Kakistocrats should be forced to spend a year in a place where they have access to nothing that came out of a mine and see how they fare. (Off to Easter Island in animal skins! )

    • I think sending them to Easter Island isn’t really practicable.

      For starters, it’s not a US territory. I don’t think the Chileans will accept a bunch of US rejects, unless they come with a boatload of cash as compensation.

      Second, it’s too warm there. St. Lawrence Island, in the middle of the Bering Sea, would be a better choice. Those animal skins would be an absolute necessity there.

      Plus, they’d have to burn all their kaka just to stay warm. That seems very fitting for a Kakistocracy.

  6. There is a bright side to all of this…Those minerals will still be there in 50 or 100 years… So we do have access to them in a future emergency.

    Great wars always last longer than expected. If America were to be considering going into a prolonged war, it could begin the process of mining and processing early. If we are attacked, then we will suffer through a year while resources are brought online – think WW II.

    I am all for being prepared – I believe the U.S. Military should identify critical materials and those materials should be developed, even at the cost of some environmental impact. Some materials could even be stockpiled, although this is usually a recipe for wasteful spending.

    The other focus is to find ways to replace rare earth elements with more common ones.

    A fairly simple path to producing more rare earth elements is to develop Fast Spectrum Molten Salt Reactors capable of burning Thorium. Once thorium becomes valuable a lot of hard rock mining operations become more profitable, and more will open up.

    • How about we just re-open the SL-1 project?

      You know, the Small, Low-power nuclear reactor project? With a re-design of course ….

  7. The modern city state mentality does not require mining or minerals. They require imports paid for with profits from identity theft, online marketing, and various financial schemes tied to new methods of creative destruction of old economy jobs from taxi cabs to store clerks to bank tellers. Otherwise mining and mineral processing are doing just fine but out of sight and out of mind. The same goes for manufacturing from apparel to shoes to autos.

  8. China’s end goal is to own control of all of South Asia. The Chinese government is eyeing Afghanistan and Pakistan as sources of the very same rare earths they use to make parts for electronic stuff that 98% of the population takes for granted. The Chinese government doesn’t care a rap how much damage it does to the environment or the people in it in pursuit of their goals.

    • China is not looking at Pakistan to control.
      1. The Pakis have nukes.
      2. The Pakis have a fanatical islamic population of 210 million. The Chinese can barely keep their 11 million islamic Uighers under control with brutal repression.
      3. They’d have to contend with the Indian military which wouldn’t look on passively, even as much as the Pakis are their enemies.

      The Chinese are hungrily looking at Vietnam, The Philippines, and eventually Australia for Imperialistic conquest.

      • “The Chinese are hungrily looking at Vietnam”

        The Chinese didn’t fare too well the last time they tried to encroach on Vietnamese territory in the 1980’s. The Vietnamese bloodied the Chinese nose and the Chinese backed off.

        The Chinese are not ten feet tall.

  9. errata to the above essay:
    “…, have introduced House bill H.R. 2975 and Senate bill S.1386 to “reform” the 1872 Mining Law.

    someone is dyslexic me thinks.

    H.R. 2975 is an pro-infanticide bill put forth by Dumbocrat Judy Chu from California.
    https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/2975/text

    while,
    H.R. 2579 is the anti-mining bill sponsored in the House by Marxist Dumbocrat Raul Grijalva.
    https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/2579/text

    I guarantee you this proposed H R act was not written by Grijalva or his staff. It was certainly written by an ENGO (like NRDC) working with a paid DC law firm and then handed to Grijalva to sponsor in the House.

    Here are some provisions of Marxist Grijalva’s “proposal”:

    EC. 107. Royalty.

    (a) Existing production.—Production of hardrock minerals on Federal land under an operations permit from which valuable hardrock minerals were produced in commercial quantities before the date of the enactment of this Act, other than production under a small miners lease, shall be subject to a royalty established by the Secretary at no less than 8 percent of the gross value of such production, or of mineral concentrates or products derived from hardrock minerals. Any Federal land added through a plan modification to an operations permit on Federal land that is submitted after the date of enactment of this Act shall be subject to a royalty established by the Secretary for such lease of no less than 12.5 percent of the gross value of production of hardrock minerals, or mineral concentrates or products derived from hardrock minerals.

    The goal above is to obviously make new and existing mines unprofitable with tax on gross value not net profits.

    Then there is this pay-off to the predatort lobby and ENGO’s to be able to sue without fear of getting rejected for “standing”:

    “SEC. 504. Citizens suits.

    (a) In general.—Except as provided in subsection (c), any person may commence a civil action on his or her own behalf to compel compliance
    (1) against any person (including the Secretary or the Secretary of Agriculture) who is alleged to be in violation of any of the provisions of this Act or any regulation promulgated pursuant to this Act or any term or condition of any lease, license, or permit issued under this Act; or
    (2) against the Secretary or the Secretary of Agriculture where there is alleged a failure of such Secretary to perform any act or duty under this Act, or to promulgate any regulation under this Act, which is not within the discretion of the Secretary concerned.

    And then there’s the money of course:

    from S. 1386, sponsored by Dumbocrat Senator Udall from New Mexico, there is this payoff to the NGOs:
    https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/1386/text

    Royalty allocation-
    “Allocation.—Of the amounts deposited in the Fund each fiscal year—

    (5) 10 percent shall be available to the Secretary for grants under subsection (f); and”

    And “who” is subsection (f)? The ENGOs of course.
    …..
    “(f) Grants to public entities and nonprofit organizations. —The Secretary shall use amounts made available under subsection (b)(5) to make grants to public entities (including State fish and game agencies and local governments) and nonprofit organizations (based on criteria established by the Secretary by regulation) to carry out activities that support collaborative restoration projects to improve fish and wildlife habitat affected by past hardrock minerals and mining activities, including activities that—…”

    There are rather stark differences between the bill introduced by useful idiot Grijalva and the one introduced in the Senate by Senator Udall. Grijalva’s HR 2579 overall is the most extreme by a long ways. Matters not, as even if Grijalva’s gets out of the House, the GOP run Senate will never take up S 1386. It has no Republican co-sponsors, and no chance of ever getting a signature from a Republican president.

  10. Paul,
    On the “reform” of the 1872 Mining Law, I can only echo Lord Melbourne,British PM,(1834, 1835-41)-
    “Reform, reform, reform….aren’t things bad enough already?”

    • To paraphrase Andrew Greeley, the man who wrote that patriotism is the last resort of scoundrels never encountered reform.

  11. I am not a fan of current mining claim rules and regulations. Diverting a steep stream into a new run so that the old stream bed can be mined for rings and other bobbles requires total die off of the original stream. The devastation easily documented in Northeast Oregon as a result of vanity mining is ugly, and destructive of natural habitats. Just sayin.

  12. Please update the Hitchhikers Guide …
    Human:
    Primate linage, highly adaptable, exceptionally inquisitive, with good memory and planning skills. Specializes in digging for the minerals and resources required to make their lives in most environments more than just tolerable.
    They also have a long history of traveling great distances, endowing many humans with additional skills such as learning to sail and trade.
    Some of the more inbred of the species are prone to illogical over-emotionalism mistaking how things are for how they feel about how things are.

  13. Meant to comment the other day. I seem to remember reading s Scientific American article years ago about the abundance of high value minerals, including rare earth, in Afghanistan. Apparently. Geologists were able to locate many potemtial mineral deposits from satellite data and were astonished at how much was accessible once they were able to survey. .Could be why we are still there.

  14. Not being able to access the land is a biggie. But there is another huge reason why many of those minerals are not produced in the US or indeed any western country anymore. The competition form countries that don’t have the slightest problem with completely wasting their own environment. And chief among then is China. No regard for their own environment and slave labor conditions make things possible that could not possibly be done this way in the US. One would fall foul on so many laws and regulations that hundreds of years of jail would be meted out. So, cant we produce those minerals? Sure we can. It’s just going to cost more as there are laws protecting the environment here. Maybe some Silicon Valley cyberbrains can tackle this problem.

  15. Well, here in Italy mining is still ruled by a 1927 fascist – era law…. also in privately owned land, “first class” minerals (ALL those with a significant economic and/or strategic value) belong to the Government….

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