As Americans are shelling out higher prices at the gas pump amidst market fears that the current uprisings in the Middle East might spill over into oil-producing countries, the public policy debate may once again shift towards the issue of U.S. reliance on foreign oil – an issue that is considered not just a matter of energy security, but also a matter of national security.
However, while the degree of U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources may be significant, it is a little-known fact that it pales in comparison to U.S. dependence on some non-fuel mineral materials.
A chart in the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Mineral Commodity Summaries 2011 report (PDF) tells the story, and illustrates why any serious public policy debate on resource dependency needs to be broadened to include these non-fuel mineral materials.
According to the chart, there are more than 30 “mineral materials” – key non-fuel metals and minerals – of which the United States imports more than 80 percent. For 18 of them, U.S. manufacturers and suppliers are 100 percent dependent on a variety of foreign supply sources, including countries as diverse as Canada, Chile, Norway, China and Kazakhstan.
While the names of the elements on the chart may sound obscure, a wide range of them are vital to many sectors of our economy, and are essential ingredients in the production of things ranging from automobiles over electronics to green technologies and weaponry.
Take Cobalt, for example. While the United States has decent reserves amounting to 33,000 metric tons of Cobalt content, we are presently producing none, and are importing 81 percent of the Cobalt we use. Meanwhile, large amounts of this element, which is of critical importance for the aviation industry, for example, are sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, arguably not one of our best trading partners and the target of U.S. ‘conflict metals’ legislation passed in 2010. Particularly in light of ongoing changes to the geopolitical map of the world, the United States would be well advised to rethink its mineral resource policies.
As the global race for resources heats up – and current signs are that it does – a nation like ours that is fortunate enough to have many metals and minerals in our backyard cannot afford to sit on the sidelines, and must engage in a serious discourse of the (sustainable) exploration and development of America’s resources.
Learn more from Dan McGroarty’s Real Clear World piece, America’s Looming Resource Deficit.