Growing dependence on mineral imports a looming problem


By Kevin L. Kearns

Contributing Columnist

As poll after poll has demonstrated, consumers want to buy “Made in the USA.” In fact, it’s a fairly obvious proposition. Americans overwhelmingly recognize that unless the United States maintains a strong and diverse manufacturing base, the nation’s overall economic standing will suffer.

While Americans have become more concerned in recent years with restoring the nation’s manufacturing sector, one aspect of industrial self-sufficiency remains problematic. And, of late, it has become a worrisome problem.

America’s manufacturers are growing more and more dependent on imported metals and minerals needed to make many of the products used in everyday life. Specifically, the United States is now completely import-dependent for 19 key minerals, and more than 50 percent dependent for another 24 important minerals.

It wasn’t always this way, however. As recently as 1990, the United States led the world in metals and mineral production. Now, America ranks seventh, and relies on roughly $27 billion worth of imported minerals each year.

Mineral production may seem an obscure topic to some. But consider this: The average smartphone alone contains dozens of different metals and minerals, including copper, gold, platinum, and silver.

While consumers may be unaware of America’s growing metals shortfall, the nation’s manufacturers are becoming ever more worried. In a 2014 survey, more than 90 percent of U.S. manufacturing executives said they’re concerned about obtaining the minerals they need, when they need them.

The real irony of this growing import dependence, though, is that, as a nation, America possesses great mineral wealth. Indeed, the United States holds some of the greatest mineral reserves on the planet — worth an estimated $6.2 trillion.

Despite this natural abundance, less than half of the minerals consumed by America’s manufacturers are actually sourced domestically. And the problem, when it comes to extracting new minerals, is mostly a bureaucratic one. It now takes as much as seven to 10 years for a U.S. mining operation to successfully navigate the permitting process needed to launch new operations.

A decade of permitting delays can actually eliminate half of a mining project’s value before production even begins. In contrast, mine permitting in countries like Australia and Canada, which maintain environmental standards comparable to those of the United States, takes only two to three years.

And so, it’s uncertainty and delays that keep America’s mine operators from extracting some of the most crucial mineral supplies used globally.

If America’s manufacturers are to remain competitive, they’ll need more timely access to reliable mineral sources. This is particularly apparent when one considers that many of the nation’s existing mines are reaching the end of their useful lifespan. And it’s why Washington urgently needs to overhaul the outdated permitting process that continues to hamper domestic mining operations.

Thankfully, Congress is catching on. The House of Representatives has repeatedly passed legislation to make the permitting process smarter and more efficient. But the Senate needs to act as well.

An engaged Washington, and one that truly values domestic manufacturing, needs to give America’s mineral miners a fair shake. Otherwise, the cost of inaction will lead to a greater dependence on imported metals. And that’s simply bad business for American manufacturing.

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Kevin Kearns is president of the U.S. Business & Industry Council (USBIC), a national business organization advocating for domestic U.S. manufacturers since 1933.

Kevin Kearns is president of the U.S. Business & Industry Council (USBIC), a national business organization advocating for domestic U.S. manufacturers since 1933.

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