Porter: Minerals: China vs the Mountain West

Porter: Minerals: China vs the Mountain West

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It is time to recognize that the United States must embark on a course of ending reliance on Chinese minerals and metals. The political and economic costs of materials dependency are far too high, particularly considering that the United States has an abundance of mineral resources.

It is tempting to think that we can afford business as usual with China, but it is important to note how vulnerable we were to China’s hoarding of ventilators and other medical supplies at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. The reality is we are even more vulnerable to disruptions in our supply chain now than we’ve ever been. This state of affairs has arisen due to the lack of a well thought-out policy on minerals.

More than ever, the nation needs to turn to one of the commercial world’s most basic weapons — competition. We need a policy that encourages increased production and use of America’s vast mineral resources. Given that the United States has in excess of an estimated $6 trillion in mineral resources, the U.S. holds the key to putting the brakes on China’s drive to dominate global production. China has investments in mines in every corner of the world. Today, China controls the supply of lithium, cobalt and rare earths, among other critically important minerals that are needed for the production of advanced weapons systems and high-tech consumer goods.

By the way, Wyoming is a key player in rare earths and other minerals.

A few years ago, China imposed export restrictions to limit foreign access to some key minerals. In some cases, its policy has led to two-tier pricing, in which manufacturers with factories in China have been able to gain access to minerals at lower prices than those charged for exports. No one with any common sense would welcome a return to the mania of the mid-2000s when U.S. factories moved to China for that very purpose.

Without a policy that gives us more self-reliance and control of minerals, our economy will continue to be at the mercy of U.S.-Chinese trade relations and the personal ambitions of China’s leaders.

Today, we see the results of the same Faustian bargain that caused the health-care debacle in the pandemic: relying on China to supply masks, gowns and ventilators, while abandoning policies that promote the orderly domestic production of equipment. A repeat of this situation must not be allowed to happen in the mining industry. While we can’t stop dependence on Chinese mineral exports from happening, we can take action to bolster domestic mining.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress to assist manufacturers who buy minerals produced in U.S. mines. And we need to make it easier for mining companies to reopen old mines and open new ones by speeding up the permitting process. Currently, it takes an average of seven years for a company to get government approval for a mining operation, whereas Canada and Australia issue permits in three years.

The best way to keep the supply chain for minerals from China’s control is to do what has served the United States so well for over a century: to offer a viable alternative based on increased domestic mining.

The risk would be low and the payoff enormous if Congress approves a measure that would bolster domestic minerals production. This will reduce dependence on China, rebuild the supply chain for U.S. manufacturers and help lay the groundwork for a stronger America.

Dr. J. Winston Porter is a national energy and environmental consultant based in Atlanta. He is a former assistant administrator of the EPA.

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