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Critical mineralsRisk and Reliance: Mineral resources and the U.S. economy

Published 18 April 2017

In 1954 the United States was fully reliant on foreign sources for only eight mineral commodities. In 2016, the United States was fully reliant on foreign sources for twenty mineral commodities, including rare earth elements, manganese, and niobium. This is a 250 percent increase in sixty years. China is the single largest source of mineral commodities for the United States, particularly for resources like rare earth elements, germanium, and industrial diamonds. Of the 47 mineral commodities that the United States is more than 50 percent reliant on foreign sources, 24 came in part from China.

It is 1954. Elvis Presley has released his first single; Ellis Island has closed; the first nuclear powered-submarine, the USS Nautilus, has launched; the first transistor radio has debuted; and the United States is fully reliant on foreign sources for only eight mineral commodities.

In 2016, the United States was fully reliant on foreign sources for twenty mineral commodities, including rare earth elements, manganese, and niobium. That is a 250 percent increase in sixty years, according to the 2017 USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries.

What is net import reliance
Net import reliance refers to the percentage of a mineral commodity used by the United States that must be imported from another country. In 2016, the United States was 100 percent dependent on foreign sources for 20 of the 90 mineral commodities that USGS tracks.

Typically, the United States imports its mineral commodities from a wide variety of countries, and in no case is the United States fully reliant on a single country for a mineral resource. That being said, there are a few countries that the United States relies on for mineral commodities more than most.

China is the single largest source of mineral commodities for the United States, particularly for resources like rare earth elements,germanium, and industrial diamonds. In fact, of the 47 mineral commodities that the United States is more than 50 percent reliant on foreign sources, 24 came in part from China.

After China, the next largest source of mineral commodities to the United States  is Canada, which provides the United States with sixteen different mineral commodities, with Mexico, Russia, and South Africa the next leading sources, each providing U.S. imports of eight different nonfuel mineral commodities.

How import reliance happens
USGS says that one of the primary reasons the United States has become more reliant on foreign sources for mineral commodities is the large increase in mineral commodities used by the United States, both in type and quantity. For instance, aNational Research Council reportshowed that computers went from using just 12 elements in the 1980s to as many as 60 by 2006.

Many of these minerals are not distributed evenly across the globe, and some countries have larger reserves than others. Chile, for instance, has more than twice the copper reserves of the country with the next largest (Australia), and provided the United States with 50 percent of its copper imports in 2016.

Another primary reason the United States has become more reliant on foreign sources for mineral commodities is the relative cost of production for the minerals. Policy decisions in the United States and other countries, as well as relative concentrations of mineral resources, affect the comparative cost of mineral production.

Why net import reliance matters
The overall net import reliance of the United States for mineral commodities is important, because it affects the risk of the supply of these minerals for the U.S. economy and national security. The path by which these minerals reach the United States ranges from production and extraction, through refining, to shipping and transport. An interruption at any of those points can affect the supply.

Some minerals that the United States depends on are produced in, or must pass through, areas that have political stability issues. In addition, some minerals that the United States relies on are produced in areas that have historically opposed the United States in other political arenas.

In addition, some minerals are not produced or used in large supplies, so an interruption in the flow of that mineral, no matter how small, can have an immediate effect. Natural disasters can also affect the global supply of minerals. The 2011 Northern Honshu, Japan, earthquake, for instance, briefly affected one quarter of the world’s iodine supply, which is used, among other things, to create LCD screens.

USGS helps
USGS notes that it collects, analyzes, and disseminates information on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis for more than 90 nonfuel mineral commodities from more than 180 countries. The USGS then calculates the net import reliance for these commodities using prior-year data and publishes this information annually in the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries.

In addition, the USGS tracks domestic supply and production of these mineral commodities, monitoring the industry that produces them as well as researching the genesis and possible locations of these minerals.

The USGS provides this information to the Department of Defense, Congress, and other decision-makers so that they can make informed decisions about the inputs of critical minerals to the U.S. economy.

Also, the USGS conducts research on mineral resource formation and provides mineral resource inventories and assessments to decision makers to inform their mineral policies here in the United States.