A Troubling Conundrum: America’s Net Imports of Metals and Minerals

March 26, 2024

Today, the United States imports 31 of the 35 minerals designated as critical by the Department of the Interior, and is 100 percent reliant upon other countries for 14 critical minerals. (Source: A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals)

Why is this a concern? Many of the metals needed for weapon systems and a wide array of consumer products, as well as metals needed for a green economy, come from governments that don’t always have our nation’s best interests in mind. 

Did You Know? Currently, the U.S. has only one mine for producing cobalt, nickel, and lithium.

This dependency touches every aspect of our daily lives from the technologies that we have grown accustomed to having at hand, to advanced medical treatments, developments in transportation, climate change solutions, and perhaps most importantly, our democracy.

  • National Security: Many critical minerals and metals are essential for defense technologies, including electronics, aerospace equipment, missiles, and weaponry. Dependence on sources outside of the U.S. for these materials can pose a risk to national security if the supply is disrupted due to geopolitical tensions or other factors.
  • Strategic Risk: Some countries dominate the production of critical metals and minerals, giving them significant leverage over global markets. Dependence on these countries for essential resources may lead to geopolitical vulnerabilities and potential exploitation of this leverage for political or economic gains.
  • Economic Vulnerability: Reliance on imports for essential metals and minerals leaves the U.S. economy vulnerable to supply chain disruptions and price volatility. This can affect various industries, including manufacturing, construction, and renewable energy, which rely heavily on these materials.
  • Supply Chain Disruptions: Natural disasters, political instability, trade disputes, or export restrictions in supplier countries can disrupt the supply of critical metals and minerals, leading to shortages and production delays for major industries in the U.S.
  • Environmental and Labor Standards: Some major suppliers of minerals and metals may have lower environmental and labor standards compared to the U.S. Dependence on these sources can indirectly support practices that harm the environment and exploit workers.
  • Technological Innovation: Many emerging technologies, such as electric vehicles, renewable energy systems, and advanced electronics, require specific minerals and metals. Ensuring a stable and domestic supply of these materials is essential for driving innovation and maintaining competitiveness in these sectors.
  • Geopolitical Considerations: Over-reliance on a few countries for critical minerals and metals can give those countries significant leverage over the U.S. in diplomatic negotiations and international relations.

Did You Know?

  • Alaska is home to one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits.
  • Alaska is home to Pogo Mine, the eighth largest gold producer in the U.S.
  • Alaska’s Red Dog Mine is one of the world’s largest zinc mines and the first mine to achieve the stand-alone Zinc Mark for its sustainable practices.
  • Alaska is home to Hecla Greens Creek Mine, the largest producing silver mine in the U.S. The mine also produces zinc, gold, and lead.

Addressing these concerns requires a multifaceted approach, including diversifying supply sources, investing in domestic mining and processing capabilities, and promoting research and development targeting sustainable resource extraction practices.

Photo courtesy of Pogo Mine.

The Alaska Advantage

Alaska possesses significant mineral resources that could potentially contribute to reducing the U.S.’ dependence on mineral imports. 

  • Mining of Critical and Essential Metals: Alaska is rich in critical minerals such as zinc, cobalt, graphite, and rare earth elements, as well copper and other metals essential for various high-tech industries including electronics, renewable energy, and defense. Developing these crucial resources in Alaska could decrease reliance on imports, especially those deemed as geopolitical risks.
  • Responsible Development: Gold, silver, zinc, lead, and germanium are actively mined in Alaska. 
  • Diversification of Supply Chains: By tapping into Alaska's mineral resources, the U.S. can diversify its supply chains thus reducing its vulnerability to disruptions.
  • Strategic Positioning in the Arctic: Alaska's mining industry plays a role in the strategic positioning of the U.S. in the Arctic region. 
  • Research and Development: Investing in research and development initiatives in Alaska could lead to the discovery of untapped mineral deposits, more efficient  extraction technologies, and the advancement of innovative environmental stewardship.
  • Environmental and Regulatory Standards. Alaska adheres to strict environmental laws and regulations that include measures to minimize habitat disruption and requiring full reclamation of mined sites. 

Strategically positioned, Alaska could hold the key for advancing a sustainable and independent U.S. future.