Houston — The United States is committed to lessening its dependence on foreign oil. Should it also be taking steps to reduce its growing reliance on imported minerals that are as vital to American industry and defense as energy?
The question is getting new attention in government, the scientific community , and academic circles, owing in part to the feeling that the US needs a more deliberate minerals policy to avoid the kind of vulnerability to foreign supplies it has developed with respect to oil.
The US imports at least half of 20 major mineral commodities. More than 90 percent of the nation's cobalt, used in jet engines and a wide range of manufacturing equipment, is imported. And foreign countries supply 97 percent of US chromium, used in oil refineries and petrochemical plants.
Moreover, mineral importss are growing. The United States had a net trade deficit in imported minerals of $2 billion in 1973, and some $8 billion in 1978. The mounting deficit is due to falling US production of critical minerals, increasing domestic consumption, and the rising value of imported minerals. Some projections put the net cost of mineral imports at $60 billion by 2000.
Those arguing for a policy of greater minerals self-reliance in the US are particularly troubled by the fact that some imports come from countries in central and southern Africa, which they hear are unstable, and from the Soviet Union, which they see as trying to gain control over the major sources of US minerals supplies.
Proposed solutions to the problem include a revitalizing of the US mining industry through tax incentives and an easing of environmental regulations, more research and development of domestically available substitutes to overseas minerals, building larger stockpiles of strategic minerals, more recycling of these materials, and opening up more federal lands to minerals exploration.
W. C. J. van Rensburg, director of the mining and mineral resources research institute at the University of Texas at Austin, estimates 70 percent of the 760 million acres in the federal domain are closed to mining and minerals exploration.
On those lands he estimates there are sufficient reserves to produce 25 percent of US cobalt consumption, and up to 20 percent of domestic chromium and platinum demand. The one important mineral with probably no US ore deposits of sufficient quality is manganese, according to Dr. van Rensburg.
Congress is considering legislation that would force the executive branch to outline a broad, national policy regarding minerals within one year. The House has already passed such a bill, and the Senate was expected to vote on a similar measure as this went to press.
"Everyone seems much more aware suddenly of the fact that in a strategic and economic sense, the US is increasingly vulnerable to [minerals] shortages," assessed a staff member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
The Carter administration has not endorsed the legislation, but recently re-established an interagency Committee on Materials, which had been disbanded two years ago. It is studying ways to reduce US dependence on minerals imports.
"We're not denying there is a problem, but we are not sure legislation is the solution,' says Edward Frieman, director of the Office of Energy Research at the Department of Energy and chairman of the Committee on Materials.
Mr. Frieman said the group is taking an inventory of all the minerals-related activities in the federal government to see what new policies might be needed. He said one aspect of the committee's work will be assessing the future needs of the synthetic fuels industry, which may required a host of minerals and materials now in short supply in the US.
Indeed, some say they feel the push for greater US energy independence may be threatened by the growing reliance on foreign supplies of minerals. "As the US strives to decrease its dependence on imported oil, so its dependence on imported minerals increases," asserts Dr. van Rensburg. He says importing energy-intensive processed minerals is proving more popular to American industry than having to secure the energy to process the minerals at home.
Dr. van Rensburg also worries that developing lighter automobiles could make the US increasingly dependent on imported cobalt, nickel, and other materials needed to develop high-strength steel products.
The American Geological Institute recently asked all three presidential candidates to "focus public attention" on the need to sharply reduce US dependence on unstable foreign sources of strategic materials, develop new sources, and increase the nation's stockpile of minerals.