When you think of smartphones, electric cars, developments in aerospace and defense technology, integrated circuits and optical devices, medical imaging and research, and hundreds of other applications, you probably don’t consider the fact that these transformative products have their roots in one of the world’s oldest professions — the mining industry. Or that Idaho could play a key role in the future of high-tech applications like these.
Without the dozens of rare earth elements and critical minerals mined across the planet, most of the technology that defines modern life and keeps us safe would be little more than a pipe dream.
Unfortunately, the United States has outsourced the production of most critical minerals to places like China. This has not only eroded our ability to compete in the global marketplace, but cost thousands of good-paying American jobs in the mining industry.
We’ve also outsourced a great deal of pollution. Most countries that supply us with critical minerals deposits lack the environmental laws and safeguards that we take for granted in the U.S., making them much more damaging to wildlife, natural systems and people across the globe.
In 2018, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated the total value of critical mineral resources produced to be $82.2 billion. We rely on other countries for more than 50 percent of most of the minerals that are vital to our economy and security. In fact, the United States relies on imports to meet 50 percent or more of the domestic demand for 31 of the 35 designated critical minerals. We have no domestic production at all for 14 of them — up from 11 in 1984.
Because of actions taken by the past administrations, China dominates the market and supplies the largest number of critical minerals to the United States. This has been bad for our economy, national security and the health of the planet.
Recognizing this vulnerability, President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13817, “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” in 2017. President Trump will no longer allow the United States to be held hostage by foreign powers that do not have America’s best interest at heart. In response, the Department of the Interior (DOI) released a list of 35 minerals essential to our economic and national security. The list includes rare earth elements and other metals such as lithium, indium, tellurium, gallium, and platinum group elements.
Idaho holds significant deposits of minerals on its public lands, which in Fiscal Year 2018 supported approximately 1,800 total jobs and $348 million in total economic output. For example, the USGS has identified the Lemhi Pass District, located in central Idaho, as holding the largest concentrated U.S. deposit of thorium, an essential rare earth element used in multiple defense and energy applications.
Antimony is another critical mineral commodity used in battery production, high purity glass for photovoltaic cells, smartphones and many other applications. The U.S. imports over 70 percent of the antimony consumed domestically by our manufacturers. Most imported antimony comes from China, which is beginning to reduce its production. Fortunately, the nation’s largest known antimony deposit is located in the Stibnite Mining District of Central Idaho.
Cobalt is another critical mineral essential for producing electronics and lithium ion batteries. Currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo produces 70 percent of the world’s supply. The Blackbird Mining District, west of Salmon, contains one of the few high-grade copper-cobalt deposits in North America.
America’s manufacturing and technology sectors are among the highest-paying and fastest growing in the country, and their raw materials could and should be sourced from the U.S. by American workers. The impacts to consumers and the nation’s economy from the disruptions caused by the coronavirus illustrates the need for domestic production of critical minerals.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and the DOI have been working to ensure the Nation has a reliable supply of critical minerals necessary for our economic prosperity and national security by identifying areas for discovery of new deposits of these minerals and accelerating their possible development on public lands.
For example, last month the Bureau of Land Management released its analysis of the proposed Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in Nevada, which if approved, would employ over 1,000 workers during construction, and 300 permanent workers during operation, while contributing approximately $145 million in combined annual tax revenues to the state and nation.
Full production capacity for the Thacker Pass mine is projected to be 60,000 metric tons per year — which, at current levels, would represent nearly 44 percent of global lithium production and become the second largest lithium project in the world. Global demand for lithium is skyrocketing due to its importance in high-capacity batteries for electric cars, laptops, smartphones and other products. As of now, almost 96 percent of production is concentrated in just four countries: Australia, Chile, Argentina and China.
Through this project and many others, we continue to champion investment in American industry and infrastructure, by encouraging innovation and responsible multiple use of our public lands. Projects like these underpin our nation’s strong and diverse minerals and energy portfolios, and their benefits will multiply as the Trump Administration encourages new development of our natural resources to embolden American economic growth and national security.
Ending our dependence on foreign powers will make America safer, more secure, and more prosperous in the years ahead. We are proud to help lead the way.
Casey Hammond is the principal deputy assistant secretary of the interior for land and minerals management.