As a new wave of economic ennui washes over Washington - a drooping dollar, the Standard and Poors downgrade, the International Monetary Fund's prediction that China will surpass the U.S. as the world's largest economy in 2016 - a little-noticed issue may prove to be the bellwether on how the U.S. economy will perform over the next quarter-century and more.
The issue is resource security - cousin to the energy security discussion that has us exercised at being import-dependent for nearly 60 percent of our current oil supply. Alarms that ring when the issue is oil dependency are still largely silent for a group of over two-dozen exotic metals and minerals for which the U.S. is 90 to 100 percent dependent on foreign sources. The media and financial markets have recently discovered the Rare Earths - a cluster of 17 elements on the Periodic Table critical to everything from smart phones and smart bombs to solar panels and stealth aircraft.
But the Rare Earths are just one part of the larger picture of near-total U.S. dependency on a range of technology metals - a dependency deepened by the fact that the U.S. is home to known deposits of many of these materials.
Do American policymakers have the stomach to add another crisis to their overfull policy plate? A single senator and two congressmen are trying to look past the debt ceiling drama, introducing new legislation to strengthen the United States' future supply of materials critical to next-generation technology, to any hopes we have of building a domestic green-tech industry, and for maintaining the fighting edge of our most advanced weapons systems.
Two of the bills deal with the Rare Earths, for which China now provides 97 percent of global supply - in large part because the U.S. Rare Earths mining industry shut down a decade ago. The RARE Act (Resource Assessment of Rare Earths), introduced by Congressman Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), orders the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct a three-year comprehensive assessment of known Rare Earths resources and their importance in the manufacturing supply chain.
The second Rare Earths bill, backed by Congressman Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), is a revised version of legislation that died in last year's Congress. RESTART - the Rare Earths Supply-Chain Technology and Resource Transformation Act - adds several action items to the research function in Johnson's RARE Act: Directives that federal agencies expedite the permitting process for Rare Earths "without waiving environmental laws," make federal loan guarantees available for Rare Earths mining projects "should lending from the private capital markets not be available," and mandates that the DoD's Defense Logistics Agency, caretaker of the National Defense Stockpile, add Rare Earths to its inventory for the first time.
The third bill, soon to be submitted by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and circulating now in draft form, looks beyond the Rare Earths to the broader range of critical materials, including specific language on materials like thorium (an alternative nuclear fuel to uranium) and potash (subject of an Anglo-Australian-Canadian tug-of-war last year to see who would control a key Saskatchewan project).
In contrast to the Coffman bill, Murkowski's proposed legislation will order a government-wide process to produce a Critical Materials list, plus a performance metric for the permitting process associated with bringing new U.S. mines into production. This last element alone would be a quantum leap forward. In independent reports like the Behre Dolbear Group's "2011 Ranking of Countries for Mining Investment" survey - known in mining circles as the "Where Not to Invest" Report - the U.S. once again ranks worst among 25 mining nations in the length of its permitting process.
None of the bills are perfect. Johnson's is skewed to government studies, too often filed and forgotten. Coffman's bill includes a call for a stockpile for rare earths, but no other critical metals; Murkowski's bill focuses on critical metals more broadly, without raising the role a rejuvenated national defense stockpile might play. Taken together, however, the three might well move the U.S. closer to the policy platform needed to allow American mining companies to compete in the global resource race. Whether any of the bills will break through the gridlock that grips Washington is an open question.
Not that the rest of the world is waiting to see whether the U.S. acts. South Korea has put up a $7 billion fund to secure supply of critical metals - the U.S. equivalent would be for Congress and the Obama administration to embrace a $100 billion resource program - and stepped up its government stockpiling. Japan's government is encouraging its major tech manufacturers to pursue tie-ups with mining companies to secure access to a range of scarce metals and minerals. Canada has scores of mining companies scouring the globe for viable metals deposits, while Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard last week publicly promised Japan that Australia will be "a secure and reliable supplier to Japan of rare earth metals which are so important for advanced manufacturing."
As for China - site of a Rare Earths Markets conference I attended earlier this month - its Politburo has been pressing forward with its "863 Program" to stimulate China's high-tech manufacturing sector, named for the year (1986) and month (March) it was promulgated. At the moment Deng Xiaoping instituted the 863 edict, China and the U.S. each supplied approximately 25 percent of the global Rare Earths market. Today, China's share is 97 percent, and the U.S.'s a fraction of 1 percent.
In the U.S., budget and debt may be the issues of the day, and rightly so. But looking back from 2020 and beyond, the true legacy of the 112th Congress - and the best bellwether on future U.S. economic growth and innovation - may turn on the fate of three bills critical to the coming resource wars.