The need to reduce the extraction of key minerals abroad

How long can the United States rely on troubled South American nations for two critical metals—lithium and copper—that are essential to our national security and transition to a green economy?

Answer: We really don’t know. But now we need guarantees because we are in a precarious position. Chinese companies have bought some of the best mines in South America, highlighting the fragility of supply chains in our country.

Four countries with a history of political instability and instability – Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Chile – hold some of the richest lithium and copper deposits in the world. Lithium is a key component of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, as well as wind and solar energy. Copper has many applications in weapons systems, consumer products, and clean energy technologies.

Growing global demand for these battery metals has led to a reduction in supply and higher prices for lithium and copper. While most of the mining takes place in South America, Chinese companies send raw materials to China for processing before they are sold on the international market. Today, China controls more than half of the world’s lithium production, having invested $4.2 billion in lithium mining in Argentina and Chile since 2017.

Unfortunately, the reality is that imports cover more than 50% of US consumption for 51 minerals, and we are 100% dependent on imports for 15 of them, according to the US Geological Survey. More than half of the minerals and metals on which the US depends for advanced technologies, such as rare earths, come from China. Half of the uranium used in US nuclear power plants is imported from Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The United States needs to address the lingering damage caused by the nation’s long-term decline in mining production and its growing reliance on imported minerals and metals. Dependence on copper imports is of particular concern because it is an electrification metal essential for the energy transition. The World Bank expects global demand for copper to grow by 1000% by 2050. A study by S&P Global warns that the goal of reaching zero carbon emissions by then will remain elusive unless significant new copper supplies arrive soon.

Geologists say there are many deposits of lithium and copper underground in the US. Just one potential copper mine in Arizona could supply a quarter of the country’s needs within decades.

For years, the United States has depended on other countries for the metals and minerals that the country could mine at home, if only potential investors were discouraged by a permitting process that is so cluttered with bureaucratic procedures and overlapping state and federal requirements that an average of 17 years from the idea of ​​a new mine to the start of its operation.

Without a doubt, major changes to our nation’s supply chains will be required to ensure a mineral security that is not overly dependent on imports from adversaries or countries with entrenched political dysfunction. Now is the time for government action, with a focus on improving the US mining permit process in a way that leads to more mines in the country and less dependence on battery metal imports.

Experts say the US has the resources, know-how and mining technology to ramp up production quickly. We need national commitment. President Joe Biden and the new Congress must embark on a realistic plan to reorient the mining industry that recognizes that other countries, such as Canada and Australia, with environmental standards comparable to our own, are issuing mining permits twice as fast as the US. unless we produce metals. such as lithium and copper on a large scale, the United States will increasingly depend on imports of minerals and metals for batteries from China and other distant and unreliable countries.

China has used its power over vital minerals to pressure other countries, as in 2010 when China blocked exports of rare earths to Japan during a fishing trawler incident, causing world prices to soar. And during tense trade negotiations, China threatened to block exports of minerals to the US.

One more thing: China may decide to dedicate more metals and minerals to batteries to meet its own electric vehicle manufacturing needs rather than export the materials to the United States. This creates the possibility of significant cost increases for US automakers if problems get out of hand.

If we care about our heavy dependence on imports, if we care about protecting our society from major economic shocks, we need to start taking steps to reduce our imports of battery metals and focus more on mining here at home.

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