Americans recently woke up to the news that China is threatening to cut off supplies of “rare earth” metals to the United States. It’s a troubling situation. But such alarming headlines could finally motivate Washington to rectify a longstanding problem—America’s growing dependence on imported metals and minerals.
It may all sound a bit obscure. But these resources provide the building blocks for everything from electric motors to medical equipment. And the Commerce Department just warned that the United States has become “heavily dependent” on foreign sources for 31 of the 35 minerals designated as “critical” by the Department of the Interior. And 14 of the minerals considered “critical” by the Department of Defense are only available overseas.
We use many of these minerals every day. The average smartphone contains copper, gold, platinum, silver, graphite, and tin oxide. Solar panels require gold and silver. Electric vehicles need cobalt, zinc, and lithium. And wind turbines use copper and molybdenum.
Fortunately, America possesses an estimated $6.2 trillion in mineral reserves—and our reliance on China and other countries shouldn’t even be happening. America’s mining sector also uses more environmentally responsible practices, and under more stringent regulation, than competitors in China, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and many other countries.
China also utilizes subsidies for state-influenced companies, shoddy environmental practices, and market manipulation to drive U.S. competitors from the market. Beijing can drive prices down to put others out of business, then restrict supplies and control prices at will. As a result, less than half of the minerals used by America’s manufacturers are actually sourced domestically. Back in 2014, a survey found that 90 percent of U.S. manufacturing executives were concerned about obtaining needed minerals in a timely manner. The problem has only grown worse.
In 2010, Beijing used market control as a weapon, cutting off rare earth mineral shipments to Japan. And the World Trade Organization has ruled that China gives preferences for mineral supplies to its own state-owned manufacturers while discriminating against the U.S. and other countries.
Complicating matters is that it now takes as long as seven to 10 years for a U.S. mining operation to get the permits needed to launch new operations. In contrast, mine permitting in countries like Australia and Canada—with comparable environmental standards—takes only two to three years. Washington must find ways to streamline this process in order to begin responsibly extracting the key resources needed for the products we use every day.
If U.S. manufacturers are to supply consumers with American-made products, they’ll need more timely access to reliable mineral sources. But many of the nation’s existing mines are reaching the end of their useful lifespan. Washington urgently needs to update rules and incentives for faster, more responsible, and more innovative extraction of mineral resources that benefit domestic workers, companies, and national security.