An internationally respected geologist named John Clema recently published an article headlined with the simple truth that "Past, present and future progress requires mining." That statement should not be controversial, since most people must surely be aware of the presence in their lives of metal and energy. Yet in their zeal to stop an industry some view as environmentally destructive, some people have actually convinced themselves they can thrive without minerals.
Is anyone really that myopic? Probably not, but on some level such activists must at least feel better by pretending to oppose the very system that creates their prosperity. They must be "pretending," because they all drive cars, live in buildings, and wear clothing. But with trade wars escalating, and America's dependence on unfriendly foreign governments growing, it is "foolish and contrary to sound public policy" to continue locking up domestic supplies of vital minerals, as Clema argues.
He explains that America's regulatory system has increasingly designated vast swaths of public lands as "off limits to mining — even before any effort was made to evaluate mineral prospects." In other words, just the possibility that an area might contain valuable mineral deposits has worried our collective environmental conscience into blocking exploration. But Americans do not change their lifestyles. They do not forgo transportation, or home heating, or give up their cellphones and TVs. They simply ban mining or drilling, and then hope somehow to get what they need some other way. And they do — from other countries, with notable consequences. "Shunning our mineral wealth forces America to import minerals from countries that pay far less attention to environmental safeguards and worker safety standards than we do," Clema writes.
That may be a natural reaction by people who worry about the environment — and Americans worry more about the environment than any other society. Still, it is easy to forget that our use of technology and energy has transformed a very inhospitable natural environment into a very livable one. For human habitation, most of the natural world is too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, too infested with disease-carrying insects and bacteria-tainted water. Our planet is prone to earthquakes, volcanoes, and weather disasters, making life difficult for all species. Yet mankind has learned to "tame" enough of nature's wild side that we now live in an astonishingly comfortable world — especially compared to the drudgery that filled the lives of a vast majority of people in past generations. Americans a century ago worked from sunup to sundown to eke out a bare living from marginal farms, chopping wood, hauling water, milking cows, and dying young by today's standards.
As Clema says, "The Stone Age did not end because mankind ran out of stones." They were replaced by better technology, with the discovery of better minerals, especially iron. Similarly, the use of whale oil for light and heat didn't end because there were no more whales, but because of the discovery of oil that was cheaper, easier, and safer. Our need for oil, gas, coal, and dozens of critical minerals may also end someday, and we should keep looking for better ways to power our society. But in the meantime, we still need mines. We each use thousands of pounds annually of salt, phosphate, cement, iron, sand, gravel, soda, copper, gold, magnesium, palladium, platinum, molybdenum, zinc, silver, gallium, tungsten, aluminum, barite, lead, nickel, mercury, and many more. We don't even recognize many of those names, yet we all use computers. Our challenge is not in deciding whether we need minerals. That ship has sailed. Our challenge is how to get these minerals in a way that is responsible, sustainable, and that our grandchildren will be proud of. That is an exciting challenge for today's leaders.
However, instead of deciding how best to obtain the vital supplies our economy needs, today's leaders argue over the decision-making process itself. It is called "analysis paralysis," and it pervades every aspect of federal decision-making. In one recent example, the administration began considering ways to ease approvals for new uranium mines, only to discover a typical duplication of authority between various agencies. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission permits uranium mines, but EPA regulates its groundwater impacts. This spring, the two agencies discussed a memorandum-of-understanding that would clarify the lines of authority, and opponents went ballistic. They like the uncertainty, because it creates delay and stymies approvals.
So that's what it has come to. Before we can decide where to allow mining, can we even decide who should decide?
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of "Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back." He is a Western Slope native.