May 12, 2011

Happy Minerals Report Release Day!

Today we officially release CNAS's long-in-the-works minerals report. If you saw our website or my guest-authored piece in Danger Room yesterday, you may have seen that it is already live. But today is our official release of "Elements of Security: Mitigating the Risks of U.S. Dependence on Critical Minerals." As I wrote on Tuesday, this report reflects about two years of research by me and my natural security colleagues. And building on many of the rare earths papers and events that have come out in the past few months, this report compares economic, political, and geographic vulnerabilities for lithium, gallium, tantalum, niobium, and rhenium in addition to rare earths.

To entice you, here are a few lines of the opening scene-setting from the Executive Summary:

Reliable access to critical minerals is a matter of both economic and geostrategic importance to the United States. Although concern about access to minerals waxes and wanes, it is rising now due to increasing demand, new competitors capturing large market shares and other trends that defy easy prediction. These same trends can interfere with foreign and defense policy goals and give mineral suppliers easy leverage over the United States and other countries reliant on global supply chains. Despite renewed attention to critical minerals, America’s dependence on these minerals is often misunderstood and miscast in the public debate.


...The more appropriately understood in terms of managing short-term risks such as disruptions and ensuring that the U.S. government’s most important defense and energy needs can be met. To manage these risks, the U.S. government needs to alter government policy, ensure access to correct information about mineral markets and better assess which minerals are required for a small number of strategic needs, such as defense and energy. It must also use existing mechanisms, such as stockpiling and research and development funding, to help mitigate risks. The Department of Defense (DOD) can also understand its unique supply needs better by including mineral problems in relevant war games involving regions such as the South China Sea and Latin America.

Based on recent history, I list the key risks the United States faces as:

• Leverage provided to sometimes-hostile suppliers.
• Persistent cost overruns in an era of budget cuts.
• Lags in military equipment delivery.
• Inability to fully develop clean energy technologies domestically.
• New roadblocks for achieving U.S. foreign policy goals around the world, especially in Asia.
• Trade disputes that entangle other U.S. security interests.
• Unintentionally funding human rights atrocities and fueling black markets.

My recommendations focus on the following overarching policy goals:

• Preventing supplier countries and companies from wielding undue leverage over the United States.
• Mitigating fiscal risk and cost overruns in an era of budgetary strain.
• Reducing vulnerability to supply disruptions, especially for critical military assets.
• Ensuring the ability of the United States to meet its economic growth goals in clean energy and other high-tech fields.

Given our nerdish tendencies, perhaps most important is where we go next with this. First, I hope this report contributes to the ongoing policy dialogue on minerals. Specifically, I hope that whatever legislation Congress passes this year is broader than just rare earths, and considers the geopolitical risks the United States faces. Continuing to limit the scope of minerals concerns to whether supplies are actually cut off would keep the United States in a permanent reactive posture. That not what I call security. Second, we are bringing this knowledge to ongoing projects like our South China Sea work. And finally, I hope this provides a stepping stone for further research by other analysts.

As you read the report, please note that one friend has already pointed out a typo that we'll fix over the weekend. In the Table 1 rare earths description, the line "Today, China controls more than 90 percent of global reserves" should obviously read " supplies," not reserves. Your feedback and comments are welcome, as are ideas for how to the security/foriegn policy communities can build out new work on minerals that will be useful for policy makers. Enjoy, everyone!