By Hal Quinn
In 1990, the United States led the world in metals and minerals production. This was great news for America’s manufacturers because it meant they had ready access to the copper, gold, platinum, and silver needed to power everything from electronics and automobiles to solar panels and power plants.
However, something troubling has happened over the past 25 years. Mineral extraction in the United States has plummeted drastically—to the point where America now ranks 7th in global production. The real-world consequence of this lost mining capacity is that we now import roughly $27 billion worth of minerals every year. In fact, America is now completely import-dependent for 19 key minerals, and more than 50 percent dependent for another 24 important minerals.
This is a critical issue because these are the very minerals and metals needed to create the energy infrastructure of the 21st Century. For example, in order to produce hybrid cars, we need secure, reliable supplies of zinc. Solar panels require ample amounts of both gold and silver. And wind turbines necessitate copious supplies of copper, zinc, and molybdenum. This explains why the U.S. Department of Energy has made critical minerals a national priority, especially since they contribute to a variety of new energy technologies.
The real irony of our dependence on imported minerals is that the United States is already blessed with an incredibly abundant array of these same natural resources. Geologists estimate that America possesses some of the greatest mineral reserves on the planet—worth an estimated $6.2 trillion. Essentially, we are sitting on top of the very raw materials needed to transform energy demands globally. And so, we urgently need to address a situation where America is often importing the very same minerals it already possesses.
Specifically, what’s needed to support America’s energy future is a plan to address the one key problem holding us back: Our outdated minerals mine permitting process.
It currently takes anywhere from seven to 10 years for U.S. companies to navigate the permitting requirements necessary to open a new mine. In contrast, mine permitting in countries like Australia and Canada, which maintain comparable environmental standards, requires only two to three years. If the U.S. could overhaul its outdated permitting process, and expedite the opening of new mines, we could see a much-needed expansion of domestic supplies of these crucial minerals.
Thankfully, the Senate is currently taking up an Energy Policy Modernization Act that includes language introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to address the production of critical minerals. Specifically, Sen. Murkowski’s legislation calls for geological surveying of critical mineral resources, and aims to reduce federal permitting delays by requiring both coordination among agencies and establishing deadlines.
Passage of the Energy Policy Modernization Act would help spur minerals production throughout the United States, and help to provide the resources needed for an energy boom already underway in America. Such supplies are crucial to new energy technologies that could bring America one step closer to a true “all-the-above” energy policy that embraces everything from renewables and nuclear power to more conventional sources. It’s past time to overhaul our outdated mine permitting process and make the United States more self-reliant in vital minerals production.
Hal Quinn is President and CEO of the National Mining Association (NMA.)