By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Dan McGroarty would tell you the irony is about as rich as the critical mineral resources untapped in the United States.
McGroarty, principal of the American Resources Policy Network, a nonprofit, pro-mining think tank based in Washington, D.C., has seen sundry environmental groups rallying against proposed mining sites — demonstrations and movements coordinated on smartphones and laptops.
Perhaps those indignant environmentalists have forgotten that those electronic devices run on critical minerals, increasingly mined in unfriendly nations, he said. Dangerous places with scant environmental and worker protections. Places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where last year 60 miners were killed in a single mine collapse; in another incident, five children died in an abandoned tin mine. Congo is awash in rare minerals such as cassiterite and coltan, used to fuse small pieces in electronics. The take from the earth is lucrative in this lawless nation, where children are forced at gunpoint to work in the mines.
“We are very selective in terms of where we apply our indignation,” McGroarty said. “Sometimes I think we prefer not to know.”
One mining activist from Wisconsin, where the state Legislature is looking to streamline the state iron-ore mine permit process, says the talk of critical mineral shortages is nothing more than a ruse by the mining industry to gut environmental regulations.
But mining advocates such as McGroarty contend endless U.S. regulatory roadblocks and an overly aggressive anti-mining movement have led to the longest permitting process in the world. And those delays could be costly to the U.S. economy and national security, according to federal research on critical minerals.
Minerals of life
The United States is second only to Papua New Guinea among mineral-laden nations for permitting delays, according to mineral industry adviser Behre Dolbear’s 2012 “Where Not to Invest” ranking of countries for mining investment.
The average U.S. mine permitting process takes anywhere from seven to 10 years. By contrast, Australia’s permitting process is generally completed within two years.
“Minerals, Critical Minerals and the U.S. Economy,” study by the National Research Council of the National Academies, notes “Insufficient investment (in U.S. mining) today can lead to availability restrictions in the future.”
NRC identifies critical minerals as platinum group metals — such as iridium, palladium and ruthenium — and rare earth elements such as cerium, indium and europium. Basically the kind of metals found in all of the household items, the creature comforts we take for granted.
“What is not widely recognized is the dependence of cell phone performance, and therefore the communications system, on a wide variety of minerals, many of which can be scarce or expensive to process,” the report notes.
The study also notes critical minerals go into the things we seemingly cannot live without. Case in point, the automobile.
At the turn of the 20th century, the standard car was assembled using five materials: wood, rubber, steels, glass and brass. Today, as many as 39 different non-fuel minerals go into the production of the automobile.
Catalytic converters solely rely on platinum group minerals and rare earths elements.
The green movement, too, depends on critical minerals.
“The new technology of hybrid electric cars requires greater amounts of copper — circa 75 pounds in total, by some estimates,” the National Research Council report notes.
A growing lineup of solar power and wind industries are moving their production to China, which dominates the rare earth mineral market. That resource shift away from the United States could have a detrimental impact on the U.S. economy, and the nation’s defense, according to economic experts.
“The United States has become dangerously dependent on imports of raw materials that are needed to keep our economy moving,” Mark J. Perry, scholar and the free market think American Enterprise Institute wrote last year in the Detroit News.
Perry said U.S. manufacturers are now more than 40 percent dependent on imports of many commodity and rare earth metals. Import reliance on gallium is at 94 percent, cobalt and titanium 81 percent, chromium 56 percent, silicon 44 percent and nickel 43 percent, Perry noted.
“These minerals are critical for defense and energy technologies and many high-tech consumer products,” he said.
In 2006, the overall valued added to U.S. Gross Domestic Product by industries that consume processed non-fuel mineral materials was estimated in excess of $2.1 trillion. Some 1.5 million people worked in mineral industry-related jobs, according to the NRC report.
Environmentalists see the argument to expand mining often based in fear.
“The specter of critical mineral shortages is used as a stalking horse by the mining industry to support gutting environmental regulations here to make mining cheaper, quicker and easier,” said David Blouin, state mining committee chairman of the Sierra Club Wisconsin John Muir Chapter. Blouin expects to attend Wednesday’s Legislative hearing on a Republican-led mining bill that would streamline the permit process.
The issue, Blouin said, comes down to price points. U.S. consumers, “already blessed with every possible technical device” may have to pay more for products but, “unfortunately that’s the price of doing business.”
As to the assertion that environmentalist offer “selective indignation” about using products made from metals mined in nation’s with few or no regulations, Blouin has an interesting theoretical argument with no application.
“The statement has nothing to do with mining overseas and everything with getting social license here,” he said. “The reality is that neither the U.S. public nor the mining industry has any control over where mining is done or how it is conducted away from here.”
“The act of buying a cell phone has little to do with the decision of an Indonesian mining company to expand an open-pit mine and dumping its waste into a river,” Blouin added.
But U.S. resource expansion advocates like McGroarty counter that where and how metals are mined has everything to do with a safer, secure U.S. economy. He said several stable nations have strong mining regulations, with more certainty in the permitting process.
And certainty, McGroarty said, is what mine developers want.
“If the permit process reveals a mine is dangerous and the answer is no, we’ll cut our losses and move on,” he said, arguing environmentalists should “believe in our regulations.”
Contact Kittle at email@example.com