USGS report informs critical mineral policy
Summaries offer annual snapshot of US mineral supply chain Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – February 19, 2020
Last updated 6/27/2020 at 5:19am
The United States depends on foreign countries for more than 50 percent of its supply of 31 minerals considered critical to the nation's economic wellbeing and national security, including 100 percent import-reliant for 14 of them, according to Mineral Commodity Summaries 2020, a recent U.S. Geological Survey report.
The list of mined commodities for which the U.S. is fully reliant on foreign nations for its supply is littered with high-tech minerals and metals needed for renewable energy, electric vehicles, consumer electronics and military hardware – gallium, graphite, indium, manganese, niobium, rare earth elements and tantalum are among these elements not mined in the U.S.
"This has important implications for geopolitical dynamics, industrial growth, innovation in high-tech sectors, and responsible consumption and production," said Morgan Bazilian, director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. "If the future of the critical minerals market is not addressed with effective policy and innovation it could negatively impact the economic and national security of the United States."
Bazilian's insights were among the recommendations contributed by a team of experts at OurEnergyPolicy, which provides a forum for a wide range of views on American energy policy.
The Trump administration has launched several initiatives to identify and potentially produce more of these vital minerals and metals on American soil.
This began late in 2017, when President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13817, which calls on federal agencies to devise a strategy to ensure the United States has reliable supplies of these commodities vital to America's economic and strategic security.
"It shall be the policy of the federal government to reduce 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," reads E.O. 13817.
Critical minerals order
The first order of business under Trump's critical minerals executive order, however, was to define exactly what critical minerals are and then determine which mined commodities fit that definition.
The terms critical minerals and strategic minerals can be traced back to World War I, when it became clear that the U.S. needed to bolster supplies of certain metals and minerals to support the war effort. Over the ensuing century, however, the definitions of these overlapping terms have been somewhat subjective and been interpreted differently by various agencies and individuals depending on their priorities.
USGS now considers strategic minerals a subset of critical minerals and has established criteria to determine which minerals should be considered critical.
In an 862-page report, "Critical Mineral Resources of the United States – Economic and Environmental Geology and Prospects for Future Supply", the federal geological department defines critical minerals as "non-fuel minerals or mineral materials essential to the economic and national security of the United States; vulnerable to supply chain disruptions; and serve an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for the U.S. economy or security."
Using this definition, USGS identified the 35 minerals and metals now considered critical to the U.S.
"For a number of these commodities – for example, graphite, manganese, niobium, and tantalum – the United States is currently wholly dependent on imports to meet its needs," according to the 2018 critical minerals report, oft referred to as professional paper 1802.
These and the other 30 minerals and metals on the critical list are vital ingredients for countless items relied on by millions of Americans, including smartphones, aircraft, computers, and GPS navigation systems, as well as green technologies such as wind turbines, energy efficient lighting and electric vehicles.
Critical minerals strategy
With critical minerals defined and listed, U.S. Department of Commerce was charged with developing a strategy to reduce America's reliance on other countries to supply these increasingly important ingredients to America's defensive and economic security.
The commerce department published its recommendations last June in "A Federal Strategy to Ensure a Reliable Supply of Critical Minerals."
An outline of the strategy includes:
• Advance research, development, and deployment across critical mineral supply chains.
• Strengthen America's critical mineral supply chains and defense industrial base.
• Enhance international trade and cooperation related to critical minerals.
• Improve understanding of domestic critical mineral resources.
• Improve access to domestic critical mineral resources on federal lands and reduce federal permitting timeframes.
• Grow the American critical minerals workforce.
"These critical minerals are often overlooked but modern life without them would be impossible," said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. "Through the recommendations detailed in this report, the federal government will take unprecedented action to ensure that the United States will not be cut off from these vital materials."
Critical minerals report
USGS and other federal agencies are already making headway on several of the commerce department's recommendations. This includes the geological survey's normal course of business, such as the annual commodities summaries, which provides a snapshot of critical minerals supply chains.
These summaries supply vital data on domestic production, imports, recycling and trends. This provides the other federal agencies with a baseline to evaluate critical minerals and determine how to ensure that America has a reliable supply of these commodities.
"Decision makers and leaders in both the private and public sectors rely on the crucial, unbiased statistics and data provided in the Mineral Commodity Summaries to make business decisions and determine national policy," said Michael Magyar, acting director, National Minerals Information Center.
The 2019 U.S. critical minerals strategy directed the Department of the Interior, which oversees USGS, to locate domestic supplies of critical minerals, ensure access to information necessary for the study and production of minerals and expedite permitting for minerals projects.
To meet this directive, USGS launched its Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (Earth MRI) to acquire geologic, geophysical and topographic data to help characterize the distribution of critical minerals and identify areas in which more data would improve our understanding of undiscovered critical mineral resources.
In addition, the USGS will conduct at least one multi-commodity critical mineral resource assessment every two years, supplying the results to federal land managers and the public.
At the same time, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is working with other federal agencies to develop a method for assessing critical mineral potential on submerged federal land and Exclusive Economic Zone off the shores of the U.S.
Other federal agencies are making headway on strengthening America's critical mineral supply chains and streamlining permitting of these 35 minerals and metals vital to economic and national security.