This summer, the Biden Administration invested $30M for projects to build facilities that produce rare earth elements and other critical minerals in an effort to strengthen the U.S. critical minerals supply chain. The nation is at a crossroads, as critical minerals like aluminum, cobalt, graphite and titanium are crucial for U.S. advanced technologies, from computers to electric vehicles (EVs), the infrastructure needed to power the national grid and all major weapons platforms essential to military preparedness.
Yet, China currently supplies 80% of U.S. mineral imports, creating supply chain and national security concerns while jeopardizing U.S. clean energy goals and economic growth.
Without intervention, this reliance becomes even more perilous, with demand for critical minerals expected to increase as much as 400-600% and demand for copper expected to more than double in the coming decades.
The U.S. should confront this problem directly in order to nurture a more dependable and robust supply chain crucial for our national and economic well-being, environmental sustainability, and technological leadership.
States like Arizona that hold domestic mining resources are the answer to reducing foreign supply, creating jobs and paving the way for a greener future, but can’t do it without adequate federal funding.
Southwestern states such as Arizona are uniquely positioned to address the shrinking mineral brain trust through academic and workforce initiatives. Home to 10 major copper mines, Arizona produces 71% of U.S. copper. Investment in states like Arizona, with high mineral production and a strong mining legacy, are vital to improving U.S. mining capabilities and securing the supply chain. With its extensive mining history over the past century, Arizona’s leading industry experts, organizations and universities are working together to improve U.S. critical mineral production but can only do so much on their own.
Congress has made significant progress to improve U.S. production and development of critical minerals, including the Mining Regulatory Clarity Act.
Additionally, the reintroduced Mining Schools Act established a grant program for mining schools nationwide to receive funds to recruit students and conduct research related to mineral production. Still, more can be done to advance the U.S. mining industry.
The United States lacks the pipeline of mining talent needed, with a mere 14 ABET-accredited mining and engineering universities countrywide only producing about 300 mining engineers annually. Meanwhile, China graduates tens of thousands of metallurgical engineering graduates each year. While there are already talented Americans working in mineral processing and metallurgy, more are required to expand and sustain U.S. critical mineral production. Further, trained workers are needed in practically every area of the industry, making our community colleges and other technical training venues vital to advance state-of-the-art curriculum and recruiting.
Increased funding for new mining and engineering programs is essential to produce the next generation of domestic mining talent.
Research and Development of Green Tech and Recycling
Much of the offshoring of mineral production, especially processing, does not follow stringent environmental guidelines. The electric vehicle revolution will increase copper demand from 25 million metric tons (MMt) today to 50 MMt by 2035 and eventually 53 MMt by 2050. Increased mining research and education funding would enable industry and academia to advance the environmentally friendly techniques and technologies needed to mine and process copper and other critical minerals while mitigating climate impact and bringing the U.S. closer to its goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
Mineral recycling research can also lead to new solutions for repurposing processed mine waste, or tailings. Older tailings can yield critical minerals with remining and processing, and help create building materials. Recovering minerals from waste streams and historic mines that contain lower-grade or complex ore could also bolster local demand and contribute to the U.S. economy.
Funding for education, workforce and technology is vital, but will hardly be effective if mining projects are stifled by lengthy permitting processes. Currently, mining projects can take between 2-17 years, while countries with similarly stringent environmental regulation and higher bars for social acceptance of mining (e.g., Canada and Australia) have much shorter average permitting times. The United States must improve public education about mining practices and illustrate how environmentally friendly techniques can minimize environmental impact and contribute to the U.S. economy.
Arizona Can Lead Advancement of the American Mineral Brain Trust
Arizona is well-positioned to create a mining blueprint for other states to follow but can’t without further federal support and mining reform. Collaboration among key local players within the mining, defense and environmental industries is essential. Together, we can foster a new generation of mining talent, advance American exceptionalism in mineral production and supercharge innovative projects and research to reduce foreign reliance and expand a critical industry on U.S. soil.