Minerals: The forgotten feedstock of U.S. industries

There’s no shortage of positive news regarding manufacturing’s triumphant return to American shores: General Electric plans to open its seventh U.S. jet engine assembly factory in just seven years; Tesla’s  deciding between four states to house the world’s largest lithium-ion battery factory; and Apple is close to finalizing its sapphire glass manufacturing plant in Arizona, just to name a few. This resurgence will continue to reap much-needed rewards ranging from job growth and economic expansion to increased U.S. competitiveness and national security. Yet, there remains one large unknown to “reshoring” success: could domestic manufacturing operations benefit from domestic mineral reserves or will they continue to rely on foreign imports for their raw material needs?

With $6.2 trillion worth of mineral and metal reserves, a diverse base of raw materials would seem yet another attractive benefit of relocating manufacturing operations to the United States. Domestic mineral reserves include copper, nickel, lithium, iron ore, gold, potash, silver, platinum group metals and many others—inputs that are essential to the manufacture of cutting-edge technologies, advanced energy components and defense equipment. The utilization of these domestically-sourced minerals could shorten manufacturers’ supply chains, reduce logistical and transportation costs, ensure environmental and social accountability of sourced materials, and better cushion companies against disruption risks.

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Despite this tremendous reserve base and the opportunities that come with its continued development, U.S. manufacturers remain 100 percent import reliant for 19 crucial minerals and more than 50 percent dependent for an additional 22 key resources. Industries across the country are threatened by mineral supply disruptions, as the United States’ complex regulatory framework makes domestic minerals development financially unattractive and new mines seemingly impossible to open.

Today, it can take nearly a decade for companies to receive approval to mine for minerals in the U.S.— five times longer than in countries with comparably stringent environmental safeguards such as Canada and Australia. This regulatory regime discourages investment in new mining projects, sending valuable capital and jobs overseas. For example, in 1993 the United States attracted 20 percent of worldwide metals exploration investment dollars. Today, it attracts just 8 percent, despite dramatic growth in global mineral exploration activities. As a result, the United States is unable to supply domestic companies with even half of their mineral needs.

Despite this bleak outlook, opportunities for mineral exploration abound across the nation. Better access to U.S. reserves of important minerals could buttress the nation’s manufacturing, agricultural and security goals. Relative to their global peers, U.S. miners are highly efficient, often exemplifying best practices with regard to productivity, sustainability and safety.   

The utility of a strong U.S. mining sector is not lost on manufacturers despite the burdensome regulatory process hindering access to domestic mineral supplies. For example, Stillwater Mining, the only platinum-group metals (PGM) miner in the U.S., supplies catalytic convertors for the U.S. automobile sector through Johnson Matthey. Materion mines and refines beryllium in Utah which it then supplies to the aerospace and defense sector. Similarly, iron ore mined by Cliffs Natural Resources, an independent, owner-operator mining company, supplies the U.S. and global steel manufacturers. These are just a few of the mine-to-product line success stories that should encourage both the mining and manufacturing sectors, as well as ensure ready access to U.S. mineral and metal reserves.

A streamlined permitting process for new mining projects could ensure access to many of the raw materials needed for innovation, shorten and simplify manufacturers’ supply chains and reduce costs for countless U.S. industries. With better policies in place, U.S. leaders could spur further economic expansion and ensure “Made in America” is the rule — not the exception. 

Fellows is director of metals consulting at SNL Metals & Mining.