The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Murkowski measure promising opportunity for self-reliance

 

January 19, 2020



Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, deserves to be commended for taking on the growing keep-it-in-the-ground sentiment that’s hampering mining on public lands.

As head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski decided to address a problem that most members of Congress would rather not think about: a slow, steady erosion of mining in the United States and our nation’s increasing reliance on imports of minerals and metals, even though they’re needed in the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) and other clean-energy technologies.

Heavy dependence on mineral resources from countries like China and Russia has too often been neglected as a vital area of U.S. national interest. For decades, Americans were raised on a belief in the unlimited potential of our natural resources. In recent years mining has been neglected as a vital area of U.S. national interest.

Mines have closed throughout the American West, even as the demand for many minerals and metals has soared. Today the U.S. is 100 percent import-reliant on 18 minerals and metals considered “critical” by the interior and defense departments.

And our country is 50 percent reliant on many more minerals and metals. Copper, zinc, chromium, and rare earths are essential in producing clean energy technologies.

Many members of Congress are unwilling to consider regulatory changes that would encourage mining in the U.S. For example, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer recently called for government funding to facilitate a switch to an emissions-free all-electric vehicle fleet in the U.S. by 2040.

For this to happen, EV manufacturers would need a dependable supply of lithium and cobalt for EV batteries, and not rely on imports from other countries, principally China, or from mines elsewhere that are controlled by Chinese companies.

But the senator said nothing about the need to shore up America’s minerals supply chain.

Do we really want to be in a situation where the U.S. is heavily dependent on China for rare earths? Or reliant on Russia for much of the uranium we need for national defense and nuclear power?

America’s dependence on imported minerals has doubled in the past 10 years, and it’s expected to get worse. Within 20 years, global demand for minerals is expected to soar while supplies of many minerals become increasingly hard to obtain.

The World Bank warns that by 2050 demand for lithium will grow 965 percent, graphite 383 percent, and nickel 108 percent.

It’s not as if the U.S. lacks mineral resources. Studies show that minerals with an estimated value of $6.2 trillion are located in the West, primarily on public lands.

But U.S. mining faces an uncertain future. New mining operations are either restricted or banned altogether on more than half of all federal lands. And some politicians, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a candidate for the White House, want to ban all mining on public lands.

The difficulty of winning support in Congress for mining reform cannot be underestimated, but neither can the results. Sen. Murkowski is spearheading an effort to update the permitting process for mining on public lands. It now takes an average of seven to 10 years or more for a mining company to obtain a permit in the U.S. By contrast, it takes two to three years in Canada or Australia.

Real progress in the battle against climate change will be possible only if the United States creates a mining policy more congruent with American interests in fostering the use of clean energy technologies. A promising opportunity for minerals self-reliance is emerging thanks to Murkowski’s measure for mining reform.

Congress should seize it.

Jim Constantopoulos is a geology professor at Eastern New Mexico University. Contact him at:

[email protected]

 
 

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