Critical Minerals

By Lindsay Davis, GSA Science Policy Fellow

The legislative and executive branches are taking steps to decrease what President Trump calls a “strategic vulnerability” brought about by U.S. dependence on imports for certain non-fuel mineral commodities. These commodities, known as “critical minerals”, are vital to the U.S. economy, national defense, and other technology, and exist in limited quantities around the globe. According to a report published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on December 19, there are currently 23 critical minerals upon which the U.S. relies to support the military and technology development, many of which are imported either partially or exclusively from other countries, meaning their supply could be disrupted.

Cover of the report released by the USGS in 2017 on critical minerals. Credit: USGS.

The President seeks an avenue by which the U.S. can decrease the likelihood that supply of these minerals will be disrupted. On December 20, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order entitled A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals, which addresses the finding that the U.S. is “heavily dependent” on other countries for the supply of many minerals, nearly all of which are imported at least in part from China. One method of ensuring adequate quantities of these minerals would be to identify and produce addition minerals domestically. The executive order cites multiple barriers to production: “Miners and producers are currently limited by a lack of comprehensive, machine-readable data concerning topographical, geological, and geophysical surveys; permitting delays; and the potential for protracted litigation regarding permits that are issued.” Finding alternative technologies, identifying and extracting minerals from local sources, and making improvements in reuse and reprocessing of minerals are among the areas to be investigated.

Interior Secretary Zinke has already signed Secretarial Order 3359 to direct the Interior and Defense departments to follow the President’s directive, which states a list of critical minerals must be compiled and submitted by the USGS and the Bureau of Land Management within 30 days to Secretary Zinke, who will then coordinate with the Department of Defense to finalize the list. The next steps will be for the Director of the USGS to submit a plan detailing how topographic, geologic, and geophysical mapping can be achieved in the U.S.; meanwhile, bureau heads who manage lands will need to provide recommendations for improving access to lands for exploration as well as streamlining the process of critical mineral acquisition. These steps must be completed within 60 days of receiving a finalized mineral list, or the signing of the directive, respectively. The plan to improve mapping will include a section on how data and metadata will be made electronically available to the private sector for critical mineral exploration.

The executive order comes just after the USGS released a report on critical minerals. USGS Professional Paper 1802, entitled Critical Mineral Resources of the United States—Economic and Environmental Geology and Prospects for Future Supply, explores minerals that are crucial to the U.S. for the economy, national security, and/or “the overall functioning of modern society.” The report takes an in-depth look at each of the 23 minerals designated as “critical,” describing the geology, uses, global distribution, environmental concerns, and other pertinent information for each. While the U.S. is dependent on other countries for the partial supply of these minerals, the report notes complete dependence for several, including graphite, manganese, niobium, and tantalum.

Example of a figure from the Fluorine chapter of the USGS report Critical Minerals in the United States- Economic and Environmental Geology and Prospects for Future Supply denoting U.S. fluorspar supply over four decades (p. G29). Data/image credit: U.S. Bureau of Mines; USGS.

Congress is also working to address the identified vulnerability, and is considering how to balance increased domestic mining initiatives with the protection of public lands and the environment. An oversight hearing entitled Examining Consequences of America’s Growing Dependence on Foreign Minerals was held December 12 by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources to hear testimony from five witnesses on different facets of minerals. In his opening statement, Chairman Gosar (R-AZ) mentioned the tedious permitting processes for mining, restrictions for mining federal lands, the reliance of the U.S. on China and other countries which could strategically control the outflow of the minerals they export, and the human and environmental implications of mining in developing countries which may not have labor laws or new technology to minimize adverse impacts. Ranking Member Grijalva (D-AZ), conversely, was particularly concerned about the effect increased mining efforts would have on public lands in the West, which provide recreational benefits and often include sacred sites for Native Americans.

During the hearing Dr. Murray Hitzman, Associate Director for Energy and Minerals at the USGS, explained that supply risk, the pertinence of a specific mineral, and market dynamics are all crucial aspects of defining a mineral as “critical.” The Department of Defense is one of many stakeholders that depend on critical minerals. As such, a program was established in 1939 to stockpile many minerals ensuring supplies are available during an emergency. Ronnie Favors, the Administrator of the Defense Logistics Agency Strategic Minerals, testified that as of 2017 the program he oversees has stockpiles of 130 minerals. He explained that infrastructure bottlenecks, mineral withholdings by specific countries, commercial shipping problems, and other points of failure are among the potential causes of supply disruption. The U.S. is 100% reliant on other countries for 20 critical minerals and is 50% dependent for another 30 minerals, according to the testimony of Dr. Richard Silberglitt, a Senior Physical Scientist for the RAND Corporation.

Mining is a contentious topic for many politicians and members of the public, and the subject came up during the hearing. One of the witnesses who testified was Carletta Tilousi, a Council Member of the Havasupai Tribe, who resides in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Tilousi advocated against uranium mining near the canyon, citing environmental impacts, local health problems, tribal beliefs that the land is sacred, and violations of the Indigenous Peoples Right of Declaration in her statement. Katie Sweeney, a lawyer at the National Mining Association, on the other hand, testified that technological improvements have significantly decreased the adverse impacts associated with mining. Although Uranium is not a critical mineral, it is an important commodity for power generation and defense.

Despite some disagreement regarding how to best address the issue, the country’s political leadership is becoming increasingly cognizant of a topic already being discussed among geoscientists: the connection between mineral exploration and mapping. During a November 13 meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Committee on Earth Resources, a subset of the Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, Dr. Larry Meinert, the Deputy Associate Director of Energy and Mineral Resources at the USGS, presented to scientists about the connection between the National Mineral Endowment and multi-dimensional geologic maps. Meinert stated that more minerals are necessary as technology becomes more complex. Per their mandate, the USGS must provide geological, geophysical, and geochemical data. There is currently insufficient data to accomplish this goal in the areas of topography, which could be advanced using LiDAR; geological mapping, as only 17% of the U.S. has geological maps at the scale necessary for mineral exploration; and nationwide detailed geophysical coverage, which the U.S. still lacks, unlike every other developed country. The proposed 3DEP National Mapping Program would facilitate topographic mapping using 3DEP LiDAR, geologic mapping, and airborne geophysics, such as the ongoing hyperspectral surveying for mineral resources in Alaska. Companion bills of the National Geologic Mapping Act Reauthorization Act, which will continue to support geologic mapping in the U.S., are currently making their way through the House and the Senate (H.R. 4033 and S. 1787), as detailed in a previous post of Speaking of Geoscience.

GSA’s Director for Geoscience Policy, Kasey White, moderates questions between panelists and participants during the Critical Minerals Briefing held in on Capitol Hill for Congressional staff in October. Panelists included (left to right): Jennifer Thomas, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers; Dr. Mike McKittrick, Critical Minerals Institute, DOE; and Dr. Nedal Nassar, National Minerals Information Center, USGS. Photo credit: Lindsay Davis

To increase the availability of information on critical minerals, GSA recently co-organized a timely Hill briefing entitled Critical Minerals: Geoscience that Underlies our Economic Prosperity, which was held on October 5 to inform Congressional staff on the topic. The briefing was part of a Geoscience and the U.S. Economy briefing series co-sponsored by 13 organizations. The briefing was moderated by Kasey White, Director for Geoscience Policy at GSA, and featured three speakers. Jennifer Thomas, Vice President of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, spoke about how critical minerals are vital to the U.S. economy. Dr. Nedal Nassar, Chief of the Materials Flow Analysis Section of the USGS National Minerals Information Center, discussed the lifestyle, stocks, and flow of non-fuel mineral commodities once they are extracted. Finally, Dr. Mike McKittrick, the Technology Manager of the Department of Energy Critical Minerals Institute, discussed challenges in the supply chain, the process by which rare earth elements and critical minerals make their way into manufacturing and energy technologies. Together, the trio showcased the life cycle of critical minerals and highlighted some of the challenges associated with location and extraction, helping to inform Congressional staff.

Critical minerals will continue to play a constantly-increasing role in our lives as new technology develops, and debates over the most responsible balance between environmental protection and resource extraction are sure to continue. One thing is certain: geoscience is a crucial part of both the economy and national defense, and both the executive and legislative branches are eager to address these topics.