President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday instructing his deputies to devise "a strategy to reduce the Nation's reliance on critical minerals" that are largely imported and used to produce everything from smartphones to weaponry.
The directive comes a day after the U.S. Geological Survey published its first assessment of the country's critical minerals resources since 1973, an analysis the agency began in 2013. The report concludes that 20 out of the 23 critical minerals the nation relies on are sourced from China.
"The United States must not remain reliant on foreign competitors like Russia and China for the critical minerals needed to keep our economy strong and our country safe," Trump said in a statement.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has backed expanded mining production on federal land, has lobbied the White House to make the issue of critical minerals a top policy priority. He briefed reporters on the new USGS report Tuesday, saying "we are vulnerable as a nation" because we rely so heavily on imports from China.
While the United States has significant deposits of most of the critical minerals it currently buys from overseas, market considerations largely drive mining. The United States was ranked as the world's largest producer of such minerals until 1995, but since then, China has led the globe.
"It is time for the U.S. to take a leading position," Zinke said. "And it's not that we don't have the minerals in the U.S. It's likely we do."
The executive order says that the federal government will be "identifying new sources of critical minerals" and "increasing activity at all levels of the supply chain, including exploration, mining, concentration, separation, alloying, recycling and reprocessing critical minerals."
Zinke and other Interior officials acknowledged that China has emerged as the world's dominant critical minerals supplier because it sells these materials for less, and they did not specify how the United States would boost production given that price differential. In some instances, China has flooded the market with commodities at a low price and later raised it once their competitors are out of business.
"We do know there are deposits that could, in theory, supply all of our needs," said Larry Meinert, USGS acting deputy associate director for energy and minerals. "This gets into basic economics, supply and demand."
Out of the nearly two-dozen minerals USGS analyzed, the United States relied on overseas supplies for at least 50 percent of all but two of them: beryllium and titanium. Since the 1990s, the agency has produced an annual snapshot of the domestic and global mineral industry for 88 mineral commodities, including the 23 critical minerals identified in the new report, but this assessment provides a greater level of detail and geological analysis.
"You need small amounts of these things, but it's critical for the function," Meinert said.
Ryan Castilloux, founding director of the Canadian-based analyst firm Adamas Intelligence, said in a phone interview that while it would make sense for North America to expand its domestic production of rare-earth metals and other minerals, commodity prices have been so volatile in recent years that this has deterred investors.
"They continue to be a challenge going forward," Castilloux said, adding the fact that the United States and Canada are "missing all of this value-adding infrastructure" that converts minerals to final products.
The prices for rare-earth metals have recently rebounded, Castilloux observed, making it "plausible" that some mining could reopen in the United States. "What we need is those healthier prices for a prolonged period to get these investors to come back from the sidelines."
David Abraham, a senior fellow at the think tank New America, said in an email that in addition to the fact that the United States lacks the infrastructure China has for processing critical materials, any effort to expand production could spark a new partisan fight. Republicans tend to use the issue to justify reforming "all mining and environmental laws that would impede the development of mining," he said, while Democrats fear it would mean "eviscerating" these laws and instead focus "on building up human capacity to develop supply chains rather than the resources themselves."
Hal Quinn, president and chief executive of the National Mining Association, said in a recent interview that his members had emphasized to Zinke, as well as Trump, the need for an expansion of critical minerals production at home. Streamlined federal permitting, Quinn added, could make that possible.
"Secure and stable supply chains are vital for the success of so many economic sectors," Quinn said, adding that when they look at how long it takes their competitors in countries such as Australia and Canada to get mining operation permits, "They get it done in two years or so, and it would take seven to 10 years in this country."
USGS experts prepared an analysis for Zinke of which critical minerals would be components of a Navy SEAL's combat equipment. It concluded that the outfit would include five critical mineral elements in night-vision goggles, 13 for communications gear and a Global Positioning System and three for an M4 rifle.
"As a former Navy SEAL, I didn't realize that when I was entering combat, much of it was made in China," Zinke said. "And that should [bother] us all."