Environmental activists who oppose mining minerals in the United States are threatening the same green agenda they claim to embrace. Among those leading the attack is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, who proposes banning mining on public lands.
Though environmentalists may not realize it, increased domestic production of “critical” minerals would benefit the environment. But existing restrictions on recovering these elements are forcing U.S. firms to purchase these resources overseas.
This can be problematic if our trading partners are unstable, unreliable or unfriendly, as was the case before the fracking revolution when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) dominated the global market for crude oil. Now the United States is a net exporter of oil and natural gas. But we continue to be dependent on imported minerals, not because domestic supplies don’t exist, but because restrictive regulatory policies prevent their recovery.
As a result, the United States today imports 100 percent of the minerals considered critical by the Interior and Defense Departments. We also obtain at least half of many other minerals, ranging from copper, zinc and chromium to lithium, from overseas suppliers; these are the very same minerals needed to produce batteries for electric vehicles, large-scale power storage units and other clean energy technologies.
At the top of the pyramid are the so-called rare earths, a group of 14 elements with names like promethium, neodymium and yttrium, which are found in computer hard drives, electric vehicle batteries, cancer drugs, solar panels, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries, magnets and smartphones. China dominates global rare earth production; it supplies 80 percent of the rare earth elements imported into the United States.
In fact, China is the primary supplier of more than half of the strategically important minerals on which scores of modern products and processes depend. Among the minerals at greatest risk is cobalt, which is used in the production of electric vehicle batteries. Much of the world’s cobalt supply comes from Chinese-owned mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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