Keeping Minerals in the Ground Keeps Them Out of the Economy

By Megan E. Hansen and William F. Shughart II, June 08, 2016

Inside Sources


U.S. Department of Interior wants to ban mining on 10 million acres of federal lands in order to protect the habitat of the greater sage grouse. That proposal, if implemented, would withdraw from resource development an area four times larger than Yellowstone National Park.

It also is wholly unnecessary. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the bird at the center of this action “remains relatively abundant and well-distributed … and does not face the risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.” In other words, the sage grouse is not even endangered.

State governments, in partnership with industry and conservation groups, voluntarily have taken steps to preserve the sage grouse’s habitat. Their work has resulted in the bird’s numbers growing by a stunning 63 percent since 2013.

Why in the world, then, would the federal government ban multiple use activities, including hard-rock mining, from such an enormous expanse of land to protect a bird that evidently is effectively protected already? Obviously, more is going on here than meets the eye.

With little time left in his administration, President Obama is making a concerted effort to block access to our country’s public lands and their abundant natural resources. The president has fully embraced a once fringe environmental agenda called “keep it in the ground.” Whether it be coal, oil, natural gas, or now minerals and metals, the Obama administration is working diligently and effectively to impede their production.

The administration has used the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency as regulatory factories whose only purpose seems to be manufacturing red tape. On every inch of federal land it has become increasingly difficult and costly to produce the resources that are the lifeblood of our economy.

U.S.-based mines produce more than $70 billion of metals and minerals annually. Much of that production takes place in just six western states, large percentages of which are federally owned. Lithium and rare earth elements, such as scandium and lutetium, are used in everything from electric car batteries, to iPhones, to computer memory chips, to lasers, to X-ray machines, to PET scanners; all are necessary to ensure a strong domestic manufacturing base.

And yet, instead of looking for ways to jumpstart U.S. production of the minerals that are the building blocks of many products, devices and technologies, the Obama administration is doubling down on efforts to impede domestic minerals production.

Mineral resources are plentiful within our borders, but the United States imported $41 billion worth of processed mineral materials in 2014 from foreign countries. The production of rare earth metals, for example, is now dominated by China, even though the United States once was a leading rare earth elements producer. In fact, we have now become 100 percent dependent on imports of 19 key minerals.

Bad policies, like Interior’s proposal, have real-world consequences. Banning mining on federal lands will weaken Western state economies to protect a species that doesn’t seem to need protecting. The proposal also will raise the costs of many products all of us use every day. Claiming that the ban will save the greater sage grouse is an absurdly deceptive justification for regulatory overreach.


About the Author

Megan E. Hansen is a director of research at Strata, a non-profit policy research center located in Logan, Utah. William F. Shughart II, research director of the Independent Institute, is J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business and a senior fellow of Strata.

At Strata, we understand the power of ideas and encourage individual development through writing and creative expression. The ideas, stories, and opinions expressed in this op-ed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Strata.