For fans of the Jason Bourne films, The Bourne Dominion offers its latest plot with a "ripped from the headlines" feel: Terrorists have hatched a plot to destroy the United States' only Rare Earths mine, allowing China to extend its dominion over resources critical to everything from wind power and electric car batteries to U.S. advanced weapons systems. Only Jason Bourne can save the day.
Problem is, the plot's just not credible.
Not because we aren't deeply dependent on China for our Rare Earths needs - we are, with China providing 97 percent of global Rare Earth production at present, a fact of which Bourne's fictional national security advisors are painfully aware. And not because few understand the importance of Rare Earths or rare metals more generally - few do: witness Bourne's fictional president sputtering during an Oval Office briefing, "Rare Earths? Just what the hell are Rare Earths?"
No, the plot's not credible because there are far easier ways to stop a major U.S. mining project than going through all the trouble of infiltrating a terrorist cell to blow it up.
As cinema verite, any group opposed to U.S. interests would simply need an anti-mining activist, a Wi-Fi connection and the email addresses of a few federal, state and local bureaucrats. A thousand Jason Bournes with arms-linked around the mine pit would be no match for a well-aimed question about an errant comma on page 15 of Appendix D-3 of any one of the scores of permitting documents required to bring a modern mine online in the U.S. today.
An old-time mining executive once told me "anyone can slow a project. All you need is a 29-cent stamp on the 29th day of the 30 day review period." Of course in the Internet era, even that cost has come down. You can reset a mining review process for the incremental price of a single email.
It makes for a boring book and a snore of a movie, but the truth is, stalling an American mining project is a target-rich environment. To cite just one example, involving an Alaskan copper project, 67 separate permits are required from various local, state and federal agencies. And given that "time is money," as any serious activist knows, stall a project long enough and you can stop it dead.
This is fact, not fiction. Exhibit A: The just-released annual Behre Dolbear Report, officially titled Country Rankings for Mining Investment, but known across the mining world as the "Where Not to Mine Report." Among various indicators, the report ranks 25 mining nations for the permitting process to bring new mines online - a process that in the United States runs an average of seven to 10 years (compare that to one and a half to two years in Australia).
But there's good news in this year's report: The U.S., which ranked dead last in permitting in 2011, gained a point in the 2012 report. As a result, we're now tied for dead last - with Papua New Guinea. Look out Russia, Kazakhstan and DRC Congo (just above us in the worst-to-permit rankings): The U.S. is gaining on you!
The U.S.'s bottom-dwelling status in this crucial category is a sign of the deep un-seriousness of our policy community in connecting the dots between modern mining and the manufacturing industries we expect to power our economy. We can work up all the red, white and blue rhetoric in the world, but it's going to prove difficult to support a "Made in America" manufacturing capability if it's not complemented by a "Mined in America" foundation.
In our world, as in Bourne's, other countries step in to seize advantage when and where they can.
Unless we streamline a process perennially judged to be the mining world's worst, the U.S. will be begging or buying critical metals of all kinds from whatever countries continue to mine them, using whatever standards - or lack thereof - to pull them out of the ground.
That's a bad ending, from which not even the likes of Jason Bourne can save us.
Only U.S. policy-makers have that power.