Minerals; Breaking the import habit; What the US should do

An old adage suggests that a person would eat a peck of dirt in a lifetime. But today it would be more appropriate to note that, on a per capita basis, an ''average American'' consumes 25 tons of raw materials a year.

Nine years ago, the Club of Rome (a group of scientists, economists, and futurologists) predicted that the materials used worldwide between then and the mid-1980s could well equal all the materials used throughout human history up to that time (1972). The intervening years have not disappointed Club of Rome prophets.

Raw materials, including fuels, are being produced globally at a rate of some 15 billion tons annually. Something like a third of this production is consumed in the United States. That's about 25 tons of raw materials per person per year in the US, 50 to 60 percent of which are nonfuels. While much of that tonnage is produced at home, the US imports over half of its supply of many minerals critical to its industry and defense. Indeed, the past decade has seen the US hunger for imported strategic materials grow to rival its thirst for foreign oil as a continuing threat to its economic health and national security.

On a global basis and in the long run, humanity is not likely to run out of raw materials in spite of its voracious consumption. In its report, ''Outlook for Science and Technology: The Next Five Years,'' the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that ''nonfuel minerals are not likely to run short.'' It explains: ''While current plus prospective reserves of some important minerals would be exhausted in a few decades at present relative prices if there is no technological change and no change in recycling rates, these conditions probably will not hold.''

''Can more abundant minerals be substituted for less abundant ones without substantial increases in costs?'' the report asks rhetorically. It concludes that, with few exceptions, ''societies can turn to nearly inexhaustible minerals with little loss of welfare.''

That is encouraging for humanity as a whole in the long run. But it's cold comfort for those concerned about the welfare of the US over the next few decades. After years of prodding by such resource prophets such as US Congressmen Don Fuqua (D) of Florida and Jim Santini (D) of Nevada and the half-million materials scientists and engineers represented by the Federation of Materials Society, there is wide agreement that the US must break its strategic minerals import habit. The thorny issue the country now faces is just what it should do to reduce its import dependence.

Secretary of the Interior James Watt would emphasize domestic minerals production and wants to open up more public lands for this purpose. So too does the Heritage Foundation - a conservative think tank influential within the Reagan administration. Its program, ''Mandate for Leadership,'' also urges relaxing environmental, health, and safety laws that are claimed to inhibit mining and minerals processing and calls for tax laws favoring mining, plus some form of price support.

It would be risky, at this writing, to presume what the administration's actual position is. By law, it should have sent a report on its position to Congress no later than last October. Although it missed that deadline, the report is believed to be ready and could be sent to Congress at any time, perhaps even by the time this article appears.

Meanwhile, environmental groups, opposed to the ''destruction'' of wilderness areas, want more emphasis on conservation, recycling, and subsititution in use of minerals. For their part, Mr. Fuqua and Mr. Santini seem to fall between such extreme positions. They repeatedly say they do not want public lands mined indiscriminantly, but do favor making an inventory of mineral resources and facilitating their exploitation when this seems wise. Above all, they say they want a workable, coordinated national minerals policy.

Both of them have bills before Congress that would establish a White House-level materials coordinating council. The Santini bill also includes tax benefits for the mining industry and new authority for the secretary of the interior to open public lands to mineral prospecting and exploitation. It would extend the deadline for prospecting in designated wilderness areas from 1983-84 to 1993-94. Environmental groups oppose these provisions.

Thus, arriving at a national minerals policy involves difficult trade-offs between environmental benefits and use of domestic resources. One indication of this is the fact that the cost of pollution control for US industry as a whole has been around 5.7 percent of total investment, while for raw materials producers it has been 2.5 times higher.

Meanwhile, materials experts see the debate in more holistic terms. While admitting the importance of a stable supply of raw materials, they emphasize the concept of the ''materials cycle'' from mining to discard. They see many opportunities for new man-made materials that can conserve critical minerals or dispense with them altogether.

James A. Krumhansl of Cornell University spelled this out in a congressional hearing in 1979 when he was with the National Science Foundation. He explained: ''Very few materials are available to man in the form in which they are ultimately used. . . . From the earth man takes crude substances . . . and converts them into simple metals, chemicals, and a host of basic engineering materials. These are combined, treated, or reacted to form alloys, polymers (such as plastics), and other compositions to meet performance or property requirements. Additional fabrication or processing steps form a useful product, which after its useful life is ended, is returned to the earth as waste, or reclaimed to reenter the cycle. This materials cycle is a global system whose specific operation is strongly influenced by energy, environmental, economic, and socio-political concerns.''

In other words, to view US materials needs primarily in terms of raw materials and import vulnerability is simplistic. Knowledge - materials science and its applications - at many stages of the materials cycle can do much to reduce that vulnerability. Indeed, Dr. Krumhansl noted, ''Basic research can be viewed as the hub at the center of this cycle.''

Also, resolving the environment vs. mining conflicts would only begin to solve the resource problem. Dr. Krumhansl pointed out: '' At each step around the materials cycle both energy and environmental issues arise. Thus, the formulation of a national materials policy requires the existence of . . . compatible energy and environmental policies. The complexity of the problems further emphasizes the need for as many options as possible in the choice and processing of materials.'' Mr. Fuqua and Mr. Santini would say that this is exactly why they want a White House materials council to bring these wide-ranging factors into a single focus.

Two and a half years after Dr. Krumhansl's testimony, his remarks still express the consensus of materials experts. Above all else, they see an overriding need to encourage materials research and the education of materials scientists and engineers. Yet they consider university research and teaching facilities to be seriously lagging. And there is little provision in the Reagan budget to improve this situation. They see great progress in specific research in industry where there are funds to support it, often from the Department of Defense. But they also see dangerous gaps where important research opportunities are neglected.

Thus, while concern has been focused on US vulnerability to a cutoff of imported raw materials, the first priority seems to be the forging of a workable and comprehensive national materials policy. Mr. Fuqua and Mr. Santini have been urging this for years. Now all concerned with the import issue concur. There is a general expectation that 1982 is the year when such a policy will begin to come together, although no one involved expects this to be a quick or easy process.

US reliance on imported strategic raw materials, often from politically unstable areas, is as risky as dependence on imported oil was in the 1970s. Prudent government planning calls for steps based on this realization. A report on the subject prepared by Reagan administration researchers is expected shortly. In advance of its release, some recommendations for action can be made to the White House and to Congress.They are conclusions which arise from research for this series:

1. Since knowledge in the raw materials sciences is crucial to reducing US import dependence, the administration should reconsider its lack of support for university programs in this field. It should identify research areas that are lagging, and either fund work in those fields or encourage industry funding on a no-strings basis. It should support the education of materials scientists and engineers. This means, among other things, restoring some of the graduate fellowship funds and the funds to replace outmoded instrumentation at universities cut from the National Science Foundation Budget.

2. In industry, too, the administration should consider a program of research support to encourage development of advanced materials where there is a significant opportunity for payoff. The administration says it wants industry to support its own research wherever possible, while government funds the more risky work where the payoff is long term and uncertain. In fact, much industrial materials research now does have federal support when it has possible military applications. Also, there is much industry-supported research where this is economically justified. However, materials experts see dangerous gaps in this research spectrum. The US needs a rational and comprehensive program of federally sponsored materials research.

3. Recyling of used materials is both wise and inevitable. But today the pattern of regulations and tax laws favors mining over recycling. Congress should overhaul the relevant legal structure to encourage recycling.

4. The issues involved in a rational materials policy are complex. Many seemingly unrelated policies, laws, and programs can affect it. Just as a President needs advice from a group that has a comprehensive view of environmental issues, namely the Council on Environmental Quality, so he needs comparable advice on materials. A White House Council on Minerals and Materials, such as proposed in legislation now before Congress, or a comparable body should be established.

5. It would be imprudent to open public lands to mining indiscriminately. But an inventory of mineral resources is needed. The deadline for mineral exploration in wilderness areas should be extended another 10 years, as proposed in legislation now being considered, provided there is assurance that the inventory will indeed be made. However, provisions in this legislation that would give the secretary of the interior broader authority to lease wilderness areas for mining are premature in the absence of a national materials policy.

6. The US domestic mining and minerals processing industry is depressed. Without such an industry, domestic mineral reserves would be of little use. How should this industry be revived? Relaxing environmental, health, and safety regulations and granting new tax breaks and subsidies is not necessarily the best way. This thorny question should be thoroughly studied by an independent presidential commission that would make a reasonably objective assessment and recommend suitable action, as did the Kemeny Commission which investigated the Three Mile Island reactor accident.

7. The administration should actively seek reliable foreign sources of supply for those minerals that must be imported. This includes specific attention to trading relations with Canada and Mexico. If supplies of strategic materials now imported from overseas were suddenly cut off, these neighbors are among the first alternative suppliers to whom the US would turn.

8. The administration should undertake a comprehensive study of the need for the national stockpile of strategic materials, see that quotas for specific materials are set realistically, and then make sure those quotas are filled. Stockpile needs should be continually reassessed as materials requirements change over time.

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