Recently, President Trump announced an executive order aimed at strengthening both America’s manufacturing sector and the supply chains that keep it running.
This is a much-needed effort at a time when the nation has lost more than 60,000 factories and 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000.
At the same time, the United States confronts troubling threats to national security, making an overall review of the nation’s industrial sector more complex than expected.
Not only has Washington allowed key parts of America’s defense industry to be offshored over the past 15 years, but domestic manufacturers are now struggling to gain timely access to even basic materials needed for industrial and high-tech manufacturing.
This has become particularly apparent when it comes to the metals and minerals needed for everything from steel to consumer electronics.
Such a predicament is not just worrying; it is entirely unnecessary. America possesses an estimated $6.2 trillion in minerals and metals reserves.
Yet the United States was forced to import roughly $32 billion worth of processed minerals in 2015.
The problem has become so troubling that, in 2014, a survey found 90 percent of America’s manufacturing executives were concerned about obtaining needed minerals in a timely fashion.
Where exactly is the United States falling short? In 2016, imports accounted for more than half of America’s consumption of 50 non-fuel minerals. Even more dramatic was a 100% import reliance on 20 key minerals—an all-time high.
Consumers are largely unaware of their daily reliance on a host of important commodities. The average smartphone, for example, contains dozens of different metals, including copper, gold, platinum, and silver, plus minerals like graphite and tin oxide. Silver enables much of the technology-driven trends in the world today, including the latest advances in athletic wear. Anything with an electronic “On/Off” switch also contains silver. And when it comes to national defense, silver is just one of many metals that are indispensable to Tomahawk missiles, drones, and GPS guidance systems.
The real question is why America has become so unnecessarily dependent on imports of key metals and minerals when it already possesses many of them in abundance. The biggest reason is that we simply can’t mine the minerals and metals we have.
Mining companies currently face a bureaucratic bottleneck in the approval process for launching new mining operations. Conflicting and duplicative permitting procedures by multiple federal and state agencies are forcing miners to wait seven to 10 years to obtain the necessary permits for a major new mining operation. This is the frustrating result of too many agencies moving too much paperwork too slowly.
It doesn’t have to be this way, however. Mine permitting in countries like Australia and Canada—which maintain environmental standards comparable to those of the United States—manage to approve new operations in as little as two to three years. Washington needs to revisit this mine clearance process, and to begin correcting these stultifying, institutional impediments.
As the Trump administration embarks on an effort to assess the health of America’s manufacturing base, and to determine whether the nation’s manufacturers can meet crucial national security needs, it should recognize that the industrial supply chain begins with metals and minerals. Relying primarily on China and other exporting countries for resources we have in abundance does not serve our nation’s manufacturing sector nor the high-wage jobs it supports.
Harry Moser is the founder of the Reshoring Initiative, a non-profit organization that seeks t o bring good, well-paying manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.