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Ending Obama EPA’s Ban on Alaska’s Pebble Mine Is Right for American Energy

Ned Mamula and Catrina Rorke

The Environmental Protection Agency is again drawing the ire of
environmentalists, this time by lifting an Obama-era ban on development of
Alaska’s Pebble Mine
. It’s part of a dramatic pivot
driven by the Trump administration, with rule changes, proposals
and executive orders all intended to realign U.S. public lands
policy with the White House’s development-minded
approach.

If the changes are implemented successfully, the administration
has the opportunity to create much-needed jobs in the western half
of the country. And if the Pebble Mine is any example, it could
finally unchain the United States from what has been a dangerous
dependency on critical mineral imports.

The proposed Pebble Mine in southwestern Alaska would bring to
market 6.44 billion metric tons of copper, gold, molybdenum and
silver, four commodities in the group known as “critical and
strategic minerals.” These minerals are critical for the
manufacture of goods as varied as medical devices, agricultural
products, and electronics, and contribute to industries that added
$2.78 trillion to gross domestic product last year. Critical and
strategic minerals get their designation because they’re not
just economically vital; they’re also essential to national
defense. The Pentagon maintains 37 mineral commodities as part of
the Defense National Stockpile.

Informed, data-driven
consideration of our mineral resources would allow the United
States to better reconcile its economic needs with its devotion to
environmental protection.

As recently as 1990, the United States was the world’s
largest producer of mineral resources. Geologically speaking,
we’re rich. The American West hosts one of the largest, most
diverse and most unusually concentrated mineral belts in the world,
extending from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean. That geological
terrain hosts world-class deposits of chromium, copper, fluorine,
gold, molybdenum, platinum and uranium, to name just a few.

But quite a different trend has emerged over the last three
decades. Earlier this year, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that, of 88
important minerals they track, the United States is more than 25
percent import-dependent for 62 of them. For 20 of those minerals,
the United States is 100 percent reliant on imports. Many of those
20 key minerals are absolutely critical to the economy and national
defense.

The risks are underscored when one considers just how reliant
the country has become on imports specifically from Russia and
China. China, by far the world’s largest source of minerals,
has already used its rare earth mineral wealth as a diplomatic
weapon. As Chinese statesman Deng Xiaoping said in 1992: “The
Middle East has its oil, China has rare earth.”

Resources can be powerful economic weapons. Consider the 1973
Arab Oil Embargo, prompted by international support for Israel in
the Yom Kippur War. In retaliation, Arab countries cut production
and prohibited exports to a number of countries. Oil prices more
than quadrupled, consumers and corporations had trouble accessing
supplies and the global economy raced toward recession. Only after
significant concessions were made by the United States and its
allies was the embargo lifted by the oil cartel.

The embargo pushed industry and government agencies to launch
ambitious research and resource development programs that developed
new technologies and unleashed our current fossil-fuel abundance.
We shouldn’t wait for a similar precipitous event involving
critical minerals. Quite simply, U.S. minerals policy needs to
return to its founding in the “conservation ethic.”

In his memoir, Gifford Pinchot, the founding chief of the U.S.
Forest Service, defined conservation as “the wise use of the
earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.” In the
last few decades, lands policy has instead tipped toward
“preservation” — the view that resources have more inherent
value than productive value. The tangible results of this shift, in
terms of exploring and mining minerals, have been excessively long
permitting timelines, land withdrawals and capitulation to
environmental opposition. Federal lands management agencies are
failing in their obligation to be wise stewards of the public
domain.

Solutions are in the pipeline. The president has launched an
ambitious new approach to resources and Congress isn’t far
behind. Earlier this year, members of the Nevada and Idaho
congressional delegations introduced in both chambers the National
Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act,
which would charge the Interior and Agriculture departments with
more efficiently developing critical and strategic minerals on
federal lands. More substantive policy reforms to expand domestic
minerals mining and production could and should follow. Informed,
data-driven consideration of our mineral resources would allow the
United States to better reconcile its economic needs with its
devotion to environmental protection.

America is blessed with expansive mineral deposits and a more
secure mineral future is within reach. Conscientious policy reforms
to cultivate a smaller, less intrusive and more focused government
minerals policy can successfully reconcile economic growth with
environmental protection, empower the marketplace and shift the
United States away from over-reliance on imports of critical and
strategic minerals, especially from China and Russia.

Ned Mamula is
an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute; Catrina Rorke is a
senior fellow with the R Street Institute.