A new government report suggests we must revisit the regulatory regime that restricts hard rock mining in the United States. A surge in demand is coming for the minerals and metals needed in every sector of our economy, and we are woefully unprepared to meet it.
The problem is not a lack of domestic resources. The U.S. possesses an estimated $6.2 trillion in mineral reserves. But we still import nearly $7 billion in minerals and metals annually. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2017 Mineral Commodity Summary, America is import-dependent for half or all of 50 key mineral commodities. And this dependency is only poised to grow.
The problem is that regulatory policies governing hard rock mining are now so obstructive that they almost guarantee mining investment goes elsewhere. Gaining the necessary approvals to open a new U.S. mine can take seven to 10 years, and often longer. By comparison, the mine permitting process in Canada and Australia—nations with similar environmental standards—takes just two to three years on average.
President Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan highlights the urgency of reform. The president has already signaled an interest in using American-made materials to rebuild or expand our roads, airports, railroads, and pipelines. Spending billions overseas on zinc, iron ore, and copper, wouldn’t fit that American-made goal. But our mines and mills can meet this need if we reform our regulatory policies.
Infrastructure is just a small part of the coming demand, however. The electric vehicle (EV) revolution is here. Consider that between 2010 and 2015, just 1 million EVs were sold globally. However, more than 2 million EVs are expected to be sold in 2020 alone. Forecasters are increasingly bullish, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that EVs will capture 50 percent of the new car market by 2040. Wood Mackenzie thinks EVs could offset 20 percent of global oil demand by 2035.
The emergence of EVs has coincided with major advances in lithium-ion batteries. Because these batteries have gotten better and cheaper, demand for lithium and other building block minerals and metals—like nickel, graphite and cobalt—has soared.
For example, just one battery for a high-end Tesla uses as much lithium carbonate as roughly 10,000 cell phones. And global lithium demand is on track to quadruple by 2025. It’s no surprise that Goldman Sachs has called lithium the new gasoline.
We may well be sleepwalking from a dependence on OPEC toward a similar dependence on foreign minerals and metals suppliers. Fortunately, legislation recently introduced in the Senate by Dean Heller, R-Nev., and in the House of Representatives by Mark Amodei, R-Nev., provides some commonsense reforms for the mine permitting process that will reduce duplication and improve efficiencies without weakening environmental safeguards.
The time is now to refocus on our hard rock mining policies. Our economy and our security could well depend on doing so. Congress should act immediately to make the United States a more attractive destination for mining investment and production.
Hal Quinn is president and CEO of the National Mining Association (NMA).