An Analysis of the Minerals Situation in the

United States: 1989-2040

A supporting technical document for the 1989 RPA Assessment

Minerals are important forest and rangeland resources. There are approximately 2,400 minerals, of which 100 are of worldwide economic importance. For this report, three groups of minerals were analyzed: energy minerals (e.g. coal, oil and gas, oil shale, uranium, and geothermal resources), metallic minerals (e.g. lead, copper, cobalt, gold, iron, aluminum, chromium, molybdenum, and silver) and industrial minerals (minerals used in construction, agriculture, and personal adornment, including sand, gravel, clay, limestone, and gemstones). Thirteen minerals were selected as an "indicator minerals" for more in-depth reporting: oil, natural gas, coal, geothermal resources, uranium, copper, lead, molybdenum, gold, silver, phosphate rock, limestone, sand, and gravel.

Minerals are essential to modern life. They are important to the national economy, and to the economy of many individual states. Some minerals are of strategic importance, and essential to national economic and military security.

Minerals are different from other forest and rangeland resources covered in the RPA Assessment. They are nonrenewable, and are more difficult to find, inventory, and develop. Mineral development is governed by a complex set of laws, and administered by a number of federal agencies.

The U.S. is rich in many of the minerals it requires, but there is uncertainty about the extent of the mineral resource. While minerals are distributed widely around the nation, coal is concentrated in the Allegheny Plateau, the Ohio River Valley, and the Great Plains; oil is found mostly in the southwest and south; and many metallic minerals occur predominantly in the upper Lake States and the mountains and valleys of the West.

Ownership of the nation's minerals is complex and there is little information on the quantities of minerals in public and private ownership. The quantity of recoverable oil is uncertain over the long-term, but the nation has abundant coal reserves, oil shale and tar sands, uranium, and the potential for greater use of geothermal resources. The U.S. possesses large quantities of many metallic minerals, although they may not be economical to develop at current prices or with current technology. Large quantities exist nationwide of minerals materials used in construction, although urban development threatens their availability in some areas.

Trends in the Consumption of Minerals and Projected Demand

  • The U.S. is among the world's leaders in mineral consumption.
  • Energy use peaked in 1979, then decreased dramatically. Since 1983, energy use has increased at a moderate rate. Demand for energy minerals is expected to increase moderately in the future. Oil use is expected to decrease, while coal use is expected to increase.
  • Demand patterns for metallic minerals vary by mineral, but there has been a general decline since 1970. Some consumers have switched to cheaper, non-metal substitutes. Demand for individual metallic minerals is volatile, but expected to increase at a modest rate through 2040. High demand growth is expected for scarce and costly specialty metals, such as the platinum-group metals.
  • Although the U.S. is a mineral-rich nation, it imports significant quantities of some minerals - especially petroleum. The trend is toward the increase of oil imports, although the U.S. has abundant supplies of coal that could substitute for foreign oil. Some experts say there are significant untapped domestic supplies of oil that could be exploited if prices were favorable.

The Minerals Supply Situation

While world production of oil currently is in excess of demand, increased consumption by OPEC nations and political factors could reduce the amount of foreign oil available for purchase by the U.S.

  • There are abundant supplies of metallic minerals worldwide, but their cost and security of supply raise questions about their availability. A number of minerals critical to the U.S. economy or military are controlled by unstable or unfriendly governments and vulnerable to regional conflict.
  • Supplies of some minerals can be extended through more efficient use, conservation, and recycling. The U.S. currently recycles a relatively small proportion of the minerals it consumes. However, in the case of a few minerals, recycled material is an important domestic source (e.g. tin and lead).

Comparison of Supply and Demand:

  • Domestic consumption of minerals of all kinds will increase.
  • The U.S. has sufficient supplies of many of the minerals it requires, although it will continue to rely on foreign sources for some minerals of economic and strategic importance. Where the U.S. gets the energy and metallic minerals it consumes depends to a large degree on the cost of domestic exploration and recovery versus overseas prices.
  • While the demand for metallic minerals will increase overall, new technologies will stimulate the demand for some minerals and reduce consumption of others.

Social, Economic, and Environmental Implications:

  • There is likely to be increased domestic production to satisfy demand, although the U.S. will continue to import significant amounts of minerals.
  • The national economy will benefit from increased domestic minerals production through reduced imports and the mining industry's increased contribution to the nation's gross national product.
  • Greater domestic production will have both positive and negative regional and local economic and social impacts. Positive effects include increased jobs and higher incomes. Negative effects include the need for government investment in facilities and services, some shortages (probably short-term) in services and housing; and changes in the social and political structure, and culture of small rural communities.
  • Potential environmental impacts include changes in lands and soils, aesthetic degradation; and adverse impacts to water quality and fish and wildlife habitat.

Opportunities for Meeting the Nation's Minerals Needs

  • Domestic minerals needs can be satisfied by increased domestic production and imports, extended supplies, and materials substitution.
  • Opportunities for increased domestic exploration and production can be enhanced by improving the business climate, encouraging minerals production on private lands, facilitating minerals development on federal lands, and by improving information on domestic minerals location, quantity, and quality.
  • Opportunities to increase imports can be improved by tax and trade measures and bi-lateral agreements with foreign nations.
  • Supplies can be extended though more efficient recovery in mining and processing, more efficient use in manufacturing and consumption, and recycling. There are also opportunities to substitute non-mineral materials, abundant minerals, and technology for scarce minerals.

Constraints to Opportunities

  • Profitability uncertainty deters investment in minerals exploration and development. Poor information on mineral resources adds to the uncertainty.
  • There are perceived conflicts between minerals development and other social, economic, and environmental objectives.
  • Laws, policies, and staff shortages inhibit development of minerals on federal lands.
  • Cost and perceived inconvenience discourage efficient use, consumer conservation, and recycling to extend supplies.

USDA Forest Service. 1989. An analysis of the minerals situation in the United States: 1989-2040. General Technical Report RM-179. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. 38 p.

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