We successfully turned around our dependence on foreign oil and gas to become a major exporter. It’s time we did the same with the minerals critical to our national security and standard of living.
“I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, find that a strong America cannot be dependent on imports from foreign adversaries for the critical minerals that are increasingly necessary to maintain our economic and military strength in the 21st century.”
So begins President Trump’s “Executive Order on Addressing the Threat to the Domestic Supply Chain from Reliance on Critical Minerals from Foreign Adversaries.” In this document, Executive Order 13953 issued on September 30, Trump lays out the emergency clearly:
“I therefore determine that our Nation’s undue reliance on critical minerals, in processed or unprocessed form, from foreign adversaries constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat, which has its source in substantial part outside the United States, to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”
All Americans, regardless of party affiliation, should enthusiastically support the President’s EO. For the United States has indeed let itself become highly dependent on imports from unfriendly nations for critically important rare earths and other strategically significant minerals, even though we could, and indeed, used to, mine and refine them ourselves. The US Geological Survey has determined that we are 100% dependent on imports for 37 important industrial minerals including all 17 rare earths, and more than 50% reliant for another 30 important minerals. The 100% group includes well known minerals such as graphite, manganese, strontium and fluorspar and the 50% group include cobalt, lithium, tungsten, chromium and magnesium among others.
Let’s drill down further into the rare earths issue, minerals that are crucial in advanced electronics, most notably to the production of iPhones, electric vehicles and advanced precision weapons.
Rare earths are all oxides of metals that are commonly found grouped together in the earth. They exhibit unique attributes like magnetism, stability at extreme temperatures, resistance to corrosion and high electric conductivity. This makes them important in the production of GPS guidance systems, satellite imaging, night vision equipment, flat TV screens and a lot of military equipment. And yet we have been reliant for years on China and Russia for these critical minerals, though we likely have more of them than both countries combined. They are really not rare, regardless of their name, just difficult to mine.
As shown in the following figure, the source of most of the rare earths imported into the U.S. is Communist China, providing them with geopolitical leverage at the worst time in history. Indeed, this increasingly hostile dictatorship is already threatening to disrupt U.S. supply.
For example, in May 2019, the editor of Chinese state-run Global Times tweeted “China is seriously considering restricting rare earth exports to the US.” In a commentary titled “United States, don’t underestimate China’s ability to strike back,” the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China ominously wrote on May 29 of last year:
“We advise the U.S. side not to underestimate the Chinese side’s ability to safeguard its development rights and interests. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!… Will rare earths become a counter weapon for China to hit back against the pressure the United States has put on for no reason at all? The answer is no mystery.”
The sentence, “Don’t say we didn’t warn you,” has historical significance for China. The People’s Daily used it before the country’s border war with India in 1962 and before the China-Vietnam War in 1979.
The reliance on China for so much of our rare earths was exacerbated during the Obama administration. The following graph shows how U.S. production of rare earths dropped to zero by the end of Barack Obama’s second term. Only now, under President Trump, are we starting to see a recovery.
It borders on insanity that in 2016, the last year of Obama’s presidency, we saw several metal mines and processing facilities idled or closed permanently in Michigan and Minnesota. In Indiana, Missouri and Washington, three primary aluminum smelters were shut along with a zinc smelter in North Carolina, a titanium facility in Utah and titanium mine in Virginia.
The Obama Administration compounded the problem by dramatically increasing the withdrawal of public lands from development through the abuse of the Antiquities Act to satisfy the anti-mining and anti-drilling wishes of radical environmental groups. He used the Act 29 times to establish or expand national monuments. Obama also used the Outer Continental Lands Act to withdraw coastal areas from mineral leasing activities. The former president declared other land off limits, claiming them to be wilderness areas or for habitat preservation and even military use.
The result has been that vast tracts of public lands no longer allow mineral exploration, leasing and mining—the federal government manages 640 million acres of land, roughly 28% of the United States, 90% of which is in the 12 western states. There is now so much federal land that contains ore deposits, we need never contemplate mining in a national park or monument area.
And we can do it safely and in an environmentally-responsible fashion. After all, Canada, Australia and other major mining countries who now lead us in mining do so with very stringent regulations to ensure environmental protection. We can do the same.
No nation on Earth has been endowed with more valuable minerals than the United States. One of the most mineralized regions on Earth extends from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean with world class deposits of chromium, cobalt, copper, gold, platinum, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, silver, titanium and tin, to name but a few. As a consequence, we led the world in mining output only 30 years ago.
But, due to environmental activist resistance and unreasonable EPA regulations, our nation has fallen to seventh in mining productivity. Yet the National Mining Association estimates that we sit atop $6 trillion in mineral assets that could add $50 to $60 billion to our Gross Domestic Product annually along with tremendous additional revenue to the nation’s tax base. It was government policies that shut off the mining industries’ opportunities to develop this national wealth. Our manufacturing arm now has to look elsewhere for these necessary minerals that continue to advance our standard of living with new and important products.
It would not be unjustified for President Trump to claim that Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden were principle architects of the national emergency America now finds itself facing.
The constraints to reversing America’s prowess as a great mining country are primarily the anti-mining policies of the left, deeply rooted in federal politics. Federal lands in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and the Dakotas contain the bulk of our mineral resources. Trump has been working to correct the mistakes of previous administrations ever since the very first year of his presidency when he issued the pro-mining Executive Order 13817, “A Federal Strategy To Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals”. Indeed, it was the review that came out of this 2017 EO that sparked the new EO issued last week.
Some critical minerals will always have to be imported, but we must recommit to use our domestic minerals according to principles of good stewardship. This can be our best countermeasure to the instability of the international supply chain for key minerals important to our economy and national defense. It will also bring 2 million jobs home.
We must give President Trump a second mandate to safeguard our national security and our standard of living.