THE UNITED STATES needs a national minerals policy, but not the one released by the White House this week. That policy--a blunderbuss supply-side approach of all-out mining and stockpiling--will be ineffective and expensive. A better approach is available.
There are some national security interests at stake. The United States should meet its stockpile goals for a small number of strategic minerals for which it has little or no domestic supply, no available or foreseeable substitutes and unreliable foreign suppliers. Chromium, titanium (the Soviet Union is its largest supplier) and platinum are examples. But that is a far cry from the indiscriminate stockpiling of the dozens of minerals and materials the new plan calls for. A better policy would call for a tough reappraisal of the 30-year-old rationale for a national defense stockpile, with a view to separating the few materials for which there is a strategic need from the many that are stockpiled largely to support declining minerals prices.
The idea that a minerals shortage has been created by a vast "lockup" of mineral resources on federal lands has no basis in fact. Most public lands are already open to mineral development, far more than are being explored or developed. Wilderness and wilderness study areas together amount to about 3 percent of the country, and most wilderness boundaries were drawn specifically to exclude promising mineral reserves. The new policy, which was drafted by the Cabinet Council on Natural Resources and Environment chaired by Interior Secretary Watt, appears to be aimed mostly at providing support for Mr. Watt's controversial open-the-wilderness plan. It may do that, but it's no solution to a minerals shortage. For the most part, easily extractable mineral reserves have been used up, not locked up.
A successful minerals policy would involve a heavy investment in research and development of new substitute materials for minerals and in recycling technologies and programs. New compounds--plastics, ceramics, carbon fiber composites and others--made of materials of which there is a limitless supply, can substitute for many minerals. And there are all kinds of unexploited opportunities for recycling that have the double benefit of removing poisonous heavy metals from air, water and waste dumps.
The administration prefers to rely on the direct but shortsighted approach. Last year, the president ordered a large foreign purchase of bauxite for aluminium. Meanwhile, funds were cut back for a modest research program to make aluminum from other deposits of which the United States has a huge supply. Even a massive substitutes and recycling research effort--that would be bound to have all kinds of commercial payoffs--would cost a fraction of the $12.5 billion the administration suggests pouring into a stockpile that can do nothing but sit there. It doesn't make sense.