Civilization’s progress has always been heavily dependent on farming and mining. The Stone Age didn’t end because mankind ran out of stones.
Instead, the discovery, mining and processing of metals like copper, bronze and iron, followed by the development of steel, led to progressively sharper, more effective tools, improved construction techniques, and other engineering and technological achievements. Nonmetallic minerals have also been and remain vital to civilization and progress.
Minerals – or their scarcity – have precipitated wars, but more often have led to certain countries becoming dominant in manufacturing vital products such as computer chips.
Factors that first influence mining feasibility include the grade of the ore, its location and access to the deposit. Low grades that may have made mining initially less feasible may become feasible over time as prices for those particular minerals increase.
Until the last few decades, mining in the United States was not only considered necessary, but was supported as an honorable effort by hardworking men and women who risked their lives to extract the ores. As attitudes about mining and miners changed, potential mineralized areas were increasingly made off limits to mining – even before any effort was made to evaluate mineral prospects.
Refusing to assess an area’s mineral potential and alternate uses is foolish and contrary to sound public policy. It makes valuable resources inaccessible to industries and societies that need them for vitally important technologies, job creation, government tax and royalty revenues, national security and modern living standards. Shunning our mineral wealth forces America to import minerals from countries that pay far less attention to environmental safeguards and worker safety standards than we do.
For example, to protect forests from exaggerated mining risks, Montana has failed to commission a reasonably sized mine for over 30 years. During the same period, its ideology-based land management practices resulted in tens of millions of acres of timberland and wildlife habitats burning, scarce topsoil washing away, and many rivers, streams and lakes being polluted. While millions of acres of Montana forest burn every year, America purchases timber and lumber from Canada.
The defunding and closure of the US Bureau of Mines, increasing restrictions on patenting mining claims, and unnecessarily burdensome regulations on already patented claims have crippled the nation’s hardrock mining industry. Meanwhile, other government agencies (such as the US Forest Service) acquired broad environmental mandates and hired personnel who oppose mining and have blocked new exploration and mining permits.
Many experts believe we are in an economic war with China, and various activist groups, legislators, regulators and judges support this for their own individual reasons. Requirements for rare earth and other critical metals are likely one of the significant factors leading to American companies like Apple moving their manufacturing to China.
Today the United States produces only about 40% of the copper and other metals that our industries require. Scarce and rare metals are generally found in smaller deposits that require underground operations that are of little interest to large mining companies but could be profitably mined in America, especially Alaska and our western states.
For instance, the Chinese currently control 80% of global tungsten mining and marketing. The USA has no active mines for this essential metal, which has the highest melting point and tensile strength of any metal. It is used in high-speed cutting tools, wear-resistant super-alloy coatings, cell phones, amour-piercing bullets, metallic skins on hypersonic weapons, and many other applications.
A mining consortium that I was involved with made a major tungsten discovery back in the 1970s in Montana. Data from drilling cores was excellent but was lost when the company closed. For more than eight years we have been trying to get a permit to redrill this site – but constantly changing rules and decisions have prevented us from moving forward. For example:
1) Federal Land is administered by different agencies operating under conflicting rules that are interpreted by officials who have no mining experience or interest in exploration and mining projects that would enable the United States to compete better with countries like China.
Reconstituting a Bureau of Mines with uniform rules that apply throughout the country, overseen by people with knowledge of the mining industry, would help overcome these problems.
2) Mining claims currently require yearly fees, while awaiting a Permit for Land Disturbance from government agencies. The process can drag on for years.
A time limit should be set for the government to grant a permit. While mine development is progressing, yearly fees should be abated unless progress is halted or other unforeseen developments occur. Mine development should generate yearly reports to the Bureau that should be stored as part of the information on the particular site. Once a discovery has been established, the claim should be patented to establish firm ownership and royalties based on production.
3) If a mining project is abandoned, vital mine and ore body data are frequently lost, and getting mining underway again by a new operator can be stymied for years.
In such cases, previous rights to the claim should be forfeited; regulations should require that data generated by the mining project be turned over to the US Geological Survey and/or new Bureau of Mines, so that it is not lost and is stored for potential future projects; and new permits should be issued in a timely manner under guidelines just suggested.
4) Federal and state government agencies have largely prevented the discovery and development of rare earth and other critical minerals resources, by limiting access to potential sites.
Instead, efforts to find, mine and process vital minerals should be supported and encouraged by people who have adequate knowledge and backgrounds to understand the importance of such deposits and how companies today can conduct all needed operations in ways that protect wildlife habitats and air and water quality. Establishing a new Bureau of Mines with a staff that includes miners and engineers would be an important first step.
Only by making these changes can lawmakers and regulators help ensure the independence and future success of the United States, its defense and high-technology industries, and its security – in the face of growing dependence on foreign sources for the vast majority of its critical minerals. With increasingly powerful countries like Russia and China supplying many of those minerals, and forming strategic alliances, American mineral independence is more vital now than ever.
*John Clema is a professional geologist with decades of experience in mining.