Access to critical minerals and metals is vital to America's military strength and economic health. As we move further forward into the technology age, we need a range of non-fuel minerals -- from antimony to zinc -- for defense technologies that protect the homeland and project American power abroad. These same minerals and metals underpin our manufacturing sector too, and the cost of raw materials impacts everything from productivity and innovation to economic growth and job creation.
Without smarter policies that increase access to resources under our own soil, America will continue to depend heavily on China, Russia, Kazakhstan, and other countries that don't have our interests at heart.
Based on reports by the Department of Defense and others, American Resources Policy Network, my organization, has found that the U.S. is at least 50 percent dependent on foreign supplies for 43 vital minerals and metals that feed our defense and manufacturing sectors. That's a greater dependence than we have on foreign oil. For 19 critical minerals, we're 100 percent dependent.
The irony is that America is geologically blessed with scores of metals and minerals right here under its soil - but it is one of the toughest places in the world to bring a new mine online.
Mining companies have to navigate a bureaucratic obstacle course to gain access to American mineral resources. According to the annual Behre Dolbear report on the top-25 mining nations, it takes up to ten years on average to obtain all the necessary permits to develop an American mine. By that measure, America ranks dead last year after year.
Under the current administration, federal agencies have continued to delay or impede the development of major American mineral deposits. In Arizona, one mining company has been trying for over 15 years to obtain approval from the U.S. Forestry Service to mine a Copper deposit just south of Tucson that would create an estimated 2,900 jobs and $19 billion worth of investment in the state.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has even expanded its authority under the Clean Water Act to thwart mining projects -- including before they've applied for a permit. In Alaska, another mining company has discovered what could be the largest ever U.S. Copper deposit, and the EPA has preemptively drafted an environmental assessment of the nearby Bristol Bay watershed, which it seems bent on using to preemptively deny a permit to develop this resource.
From a national security perspective, these policies make no sense. Copper is used extensively not only in construction, industrial machinery, transport vehicles, electronics, and power generation, but in next-gen energy alternatives like wind and solar power. It is also the second-most used material by the Department of Defense, and a key source of other strategic minerals through the refining process.
And while U.S. Federal agencies have blocked efforts to develop domestic Copper resources, China continues to stockpile more Copper in its warehouses than the U.S. consumes in an entire year.
When he assumes office again in 2013, President Obama should work with the EPA and all stakeholders to make that responsible access to supplies of metals and minerals critical to our economic and national security is a top priority.
Daniel McGroarty is president of American Resources Policy Network, a non-partisan education and public policy research organization.