Guest column/We can win the global battle for minerals
As policymakers search for a way to recharge the nation’s economy, an important goal will be to create a stable, secure manufacturing base for advanced technologies — electric vehicles, renewable energy systems and strategic weapons. That will take time and resources, but I believe we will need a major investment in domestic mining capability in order to get the job done.
The United States is now increasingly dependent on China and other countries with fast-growing economies for critically-important minerals and metals, especially metals needed for lithium-ion batteries. Much like the erosion of manufacturing due to offshoring, American mining has suffered a similar fate despite world-class resources. Today, automobile companies gearing up to build EVs or defense companies building advanced missile-defense systems must obtain most of the raw materials they need from sources abroad. Too many of these essential metals are coming from supply chains controlled by China.
How then to revive America’s mining industry and stem the tide of foreign imports?
The goal is to make mining in the United States more attractive to investors. In the changing environment for manufacturing — driven by volatile energy prices and tighter credit conditions — the companies in Ohio and other industrial states that will succeed are those that make use of supply chains for raw materials that are safe and secure.
To put it baldly, the fate of the U.S. auto industry will depend on the availability and price of battery metals, which in most places is rising precipitously. Demand for lithium is expected to jump 40-fold in less than two decades, and other metals in great demand like cobalt and nickel aren’t far behind.
The heads of major U.S. auto companies recently warned that a shortage of battery metals could stall U.S. production of EVs and give China a commanding lead in production. As it is, China has a grip on the global supply of many of the most critical battery metals, including cobalt and rare earths.
One of the greatest dangers the United States faces is our failure to take advantage of our own mineral resources. They’re abundant, and beneath the ground just about everywhere, from Maine and Michigan to New Mexico.
That realization finally hit home. The Biden Administration recently added battery metals to a list of items covered by the Defense Production Act, meaning mining companies will potentially be able to obtain grants and other types of government financial assistance to help bolster U.S. minerals production. But the seriousness of the supply problem argues for immediate action on a much bigger scale.
Short term, we can achieve the greatest results if Congress were to streamline the mine permitting process. It currently takes an average of 10 years or more to obtain approval to open a new mine in the United States. With fewer overlapping regulations and less red tape, it could be done in less than half the time. And it needs to be done far quicker because mounting material demand is overtaking the ability of producers to bring supplies to market.
Yet some members of Congress believe that large portions of the U.S. mining law need to be rewritten. Never mind that Congress could debate mining policy until the cows come home. We’re hearing the same arguments from anti-mining environmentalists that were made 40 years ago. Let’s be clear: We need to ramp up domestic minerals production, not adopt punitive legislation that cripples investment and drives production overseas.
U.S. overreliance on mineral imports — and our alarming dependence on China — is a problem we can’t afford to kick down the road. The supply chain disruptions that are currently upending supplies of all kinds of essential goods are but a small preview of what could happen if we don’t get serious about reshoring mineral production and processing.
Rebuilding America’s industrial base should begin with rebuilding American mining and providing the conditions to do so.
Targeted government support in the form of loans and grants to address our most pressing problems is a good place to start but we need to think bigger. We need a recommitment to competitiveness, to lowering self-imposed barriers to mining investment and ensuring our industry can respond to the fast-growing demand for minerals. Getting mining policy right will underpin the supply chain security needed for our defense sector but also provide the secure, American industrial base needed to ensure that vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines are manufactured here at home.
(Chase is professor emeritus from Marietta College.)