USA updates critical minerals list

Materials World magazine
,
1 Mar 2018

Following updates to the 23-strong list of minerals deemed critical to the USA, President Donald Trump signed an executive order strengthening internal production. Khai Trung Le investigates. 

In a statement made on signing an executive order to reduce the USA’s material dependency on the international community, US President Donald Trump’s intentions could not be clearer – ‘The United States must not remain reliant on foreign competitors like Russia and China for the critical minerals needed to keep our economy strong and our country safe,’ he said.

His order is based on the results of the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) report, Critical Mineral Resources of the United States – Economic and Environmental Geology and Prospects for Future Supply, naming 23 minerals deemed critical to the country. 

Manganese is the only new additiont to it, among antimony, lithium, selenium, niobium, and cobalt. ‘The USA is currently 100% reliant on foreign sources for 20 mineral commodities and imports the majority of its supply of more than 50 mineral commodities,’ according to the report,

Prior to December 2017, the most recent analysis of the USA’s long-term resource position was in 1973 with the report, United States Mineral Resources, also published by the USGS. Since then, the 2017 report notes that the country ‘has greatly increased mineral production but has not kept pace with consumption. Self-sufficiency in minerals has declined, both overall and in numbers of minerals involved’. Production and consumption across the world has also increased, with the report conceding that the USA is no longer the world’s principal market for raw materials.

Problems outlined in accessing the USA’s natural mineral resources, include a lack of machine-readable data on topological, geological, and geographic surveys, permitting delays and the potential for protracted litigation on permits granted, and a lack of private sector exploration. But the wider problem may be in the lack of opportunities – the report states, ‘for many minerals, the United States currently has no mine production or any significant identified resources’.

It’s an order

While the report acknowledges that mineral commodities are generally found in small concentrations as to render no country fully self-sufficient for its mineral needs, Trump followed up the report with an executive order looking to reduce the country’s dependency on international minerals. Specifically, the order urges the reduction of ‘the nation’s vulnerability to disruptions in the supply of critical minerals, which constitutes a strategic vulnerability for the security and prosperity of the United States’ by increasing ‘private sector domestic exploration, production, recycling, and repossession of critical minerals’.

The move has proven highly popular with Republicans, with Congressional Western Caucus Chairman Paul Gosar remarking, ‘Our reliance for critical materials on foreign nations of questionable stability, and who have demonstrated hostile intentions towards the USA, constitutes a serious security threat.’ More directly, Ann Bridges, Policy Advisor at libertarian think tank, the Heartland Institute, said, ‘The sooner we get out from under our dependence on China, the better we will be. At this point, if China declared war on us, we couldn’t defend ourselves without their willingness to supply us with arms.’ 

Wildland

Many see the executive order as the first step in opening up states with geological formations that have previously been off limits for exploration and mining. Alaska, one of the most likely to be exploited, is believed to house at least 15 of the 23 listed critical materials.Senator Lisa Murkowski has repeatedly introduced legislation to expedite mine permitting procedures. State geological agencies including the USGS have found specialised granites containing tin, indium, tungsten, titanium, tantalum, and fluorspar in regions of Alaska that are also prospective for rare earth elements.

Similarly, NioCorp Developments attracted fresh investment in a Nebraska mine covering niobium and scandium just weeks after the executive order. NioCorp has been expressing an interest in mineral deposits near Elk Creek, Johnson County, for over eight years. It is believed to be one of the largest deposits of niobium in the world, and features significant quantities of scandium, which is not considered a critical mineral in the recent USGS report. In response to the executive order, NioCorp CEO Mark Smith said, ‘We think it’s tremendous that the United States has recognised it has a critical metals problem. We have these minerals in our own backyard.’

Protest expected

Significant protest towards furthering any mining activities in Alaska is expected, including recent action from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintaining restrictions on the Pebble Mine copper and gold mine project in the Bristol Bay region. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said, ‘It is my judgement at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there. Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world class fisheries deserve the utmost protection.’

Paul Driessen, a policy advisor for the USA non-profit Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, anticipates a backlash of environmental concerns, saying, ‘Unfortunately, environmentalists are adamantly opposed to opening these areas up to mining, even for materials necessary for the computers, cell phones, renewable energy systems, and battery-powered cars they use daily and profess to love. This cannot continue.