The 2015 aluminum-intensive Ford F-150 — an impressive 700 lbs. lighter than last year’s model — is but one of many examples of American ingenuity and innovation revealed at this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Automakers are increasingly looking to aluminum, high-strength steel, and countless other minerals and metals to improve vehicle safety, efficiency and reliability and implement cutting-edge technology like the “smart” LCD dashboard display found in the 2015 Audi TT. While high-tech applications for these minerals and metals are endless, supplies are not.
The U.S. auto industry, along with other manufacturing-intensive sectors, must compete with global counterparts for a diverse palette of minerals crucial to the production of 21st century products due to our reliance on foreign mineral supplies. In fact, the U.S. remains 100 percent import-reliant on foreign sources for 18 key mineral resources and at least 50 percent import dependent on another 24. This reliance threatens to affect the cost, stability and security of U.S. industry supply chain just as the economy returns to pre-recession productivity.
To demonstrate this threat to U.S. production, consider a real-world example. This month Indonesia, a leading mineral producer and exporter, implemented an export ban on mineral ores, including bauxite—a key ingredient in aluminum—copper, nickel, tin, gold and silver. Despite having commercially recoverable reserves of several of these minerals, the United States is now scrambling to secure adequate supplies in direct competition with other foreign nations such as China, which must supply its own industries. Export restrictions among mineral-rich nations like Indonesia are occurring with greater frequency, making the acquisition of these key resources an increasingly zero-sum game and threatening the domestic manufacture of next generation technologies like the 2015 Ford F-150 — heavily dependent on bauxite to reach the showroom floor.
The good news is that opportunities for mineral exploration abound here in the United States. Not only are we home to the world’s largest mineral reserve base, valued at more than $6.2 trillion, but our viable reserves of minerals and metals such as iron ore, copper, gold, platinum, zinc and potash could provide immeasurable stability to our nation’s industries.
Unfortunately, the United States’ protracted and duplicative permitting system for mineral mines keeps these resources locked underground and forces the nation to unnecessarily compete with countries around the world for valuable resources that we have right here at home.
Today it can take nearly a decade for companies to receive approval to mine minerals in the United States — five times longer than in countries with comparably stringent environmental safeguards such as Canada and Australia. This regulatory regime discourages investment and new mining projects, sending valuable capital and jobs overseas. For example, in 1993 the U.S. attracted 20 percent of worldwide metals exploration investment dollars, while in 2013, we attracted just 8 percent, despite sweeping global growth in mineral exploration activities.
Policymakers have begun to recognize the importance of minerals to American security and economic success. Last September, the House passed the bi-partisan “National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013”, which ensures efficient, timely and thorough permit reviews without reducing any of the country’s strict environmental protections. By establishing predictable and more efficient permitting, this bill would enable our nation to re-attract the investment in mineral development that has gone elsewhere for decades, creating high-wage jobs and providing reliable supplies of minerals that are essential to the nation’s automotive, energy and consumer electronics sectors, to name a few.
If we hope to strengthen our economy, encourage more companies to bring operations home and keep the United States at the helm of global innovation, our government leaders must improve the lengthy and outdated minerals mining permitting process and policies that promote sustainable domestic development.
Quinn is president and CEO of the National Mining Association (NMA), which advocates on behalf of America’s mining and minerals resources.