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Minerals: Crumbling Bedrock of U.S. Security

Update:2013-11-19 11:59:58  Source:  Author:zhao Return
During the War of Independence, America learned the painful lesson of reliance on foreign nations. The newborn United States had to rely on France and the Netherlands to supply everything from iron and gunpowder to blankets and clothing, and Britain routinely cut Americas supply lines. Seeing this weakness, Americas founders implemented a national strategy promoting industrial and military self-sufficiency in order to establish the nations security. It seems America has forgotten that lesson. One specific example is in mineral production. Americas leaders have allowed the nations once formidable mining industry to erode. Many mineralsincluding some that are strategically important for the militaryare no longer produced in the United States at all. Due to lack of investment, radical environmental activism, and low-cost foreign competition, many of Americas former mining giants have turned off the drills, closed the refineries and sent the workers home, or have chosen to develop new production outside the U.S. Its not that America wasnt warned. Back in 1985, the secretary of the United States Army testified before Congress that America was more than 50 percent dependent on foreign sources for 23 of 40 critical materials essential to U.S. national security (Plain Truth, November/December 1985). The year before, U.S. Marine Corps Major R.A. Hagerman wrote: Since World War ii, the United States has become increasingly dependent on foreign sources for almost all non-fuel minerals. The availability of these minerals have an extremely important impact on American industry and, in turn, on U.S. defense capabilities. Without just a few critical minerals, such as cobalt, manganese, chromium and platinum, it would be virtually impossible to produce many defense products such as jet engine, missile components, electronic components, iron, steel, etc. This places the U.S. in a vulnerable position with a direct threat to our defense production capability if the supply of strategic minerals is disrupted by foreign powers (emphasis mine). A look at Americas mining production since the mid-to-late 1980s is not just shocking, it is chilling (see Figures 1-3). Cobalt, for example, is one of the most critical minerals used in America and is considered a strategic metal by the U.S. government, meaning that its availability during a national emergency would seriously affect the economic, industrial and defensive capability of the country. It has many diverse commercial, industrial and military applications including superalloys (used to make parts for jet aircraft engines), magnets, high-speed steels, catalysts for petroleum and chemical industries as well as for paints, varnishes and inks. Just prior to America entering World War ii, the U.S. made a scramble to begin cobalt mining, but production did not begin until 1940. Production continued until 1971, when the mines were closed and cobalt mining ceased to exist in America. The most recent data available from the U.S. Geological Survey (usgs) shows that, as of 2004, the over 8,700 tons the nation consumes is 100 percent imported. Cobalt sells for more than $45,000 a ton. Manganese is another essential mineral America no longer produces. It is essential to iron and steel production by virtue of its sulfur-fixing, deoxidizing and alloying properties. Manganese is also a key component of certain widely used aluminum alloys and of dry cell batteries and plant fertilizers. In 1918 America produced over 400,000 tons of manganese, which was over 44 percent of global production. By the end of World War ii, mining had fallen to only 12 percent of global production, covering just 28 percent of Americas daily needs. Since then, manganese production has steadily eroded; the last domestic ingot of manganese was mined in 1990. Today America imports 100 percent of its manganese consumption. America no longer produces any chromium either, a mineral the usgs calls one of the nations most important strategic and critical materials. Chromium is used to harden iron, steel and other nonferrous alloys. The list of minerals that America no longer produces is astounding and growing. America no longer produces indium (as of 1970), arsenic (1985), gallium (1987), bauxite or alumina (1989), tin (1990), thorium (1992), mercury (1993), tungsten (1995), fluorspar (1997), nickel (1999), vanadium (2000), antimony (2001) or rare earth minerals (2002), to name a few. Then there is a whole host of other minerals, like iron, zinc and titanium, that America produces at greatly reduced volumes. Allowing such a wide swath of the nations mineral production base to dry up and disappear is a critical miscalculation. You cant just turn mines on and off at the flick of a switch. The average person doesnt stop to think that a process of several years is involved from the point of minerals exploration to on-site development to extraction, smelting and manufacture of the primary products, former American Mining Congress President J. Allen Overton once noted. Once lost, it will take yearsif everto recover it. As America has been divesting itself of mineral-producing capacity, other nations have been quick to embrace it. Unfortunately for the U.S., the ability to control global production of strategic minerals is an incredibly powerful political weapon.

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