It’s August. Do you know where your Federal Regulators Are?
It’s August in Washington, the perfect time for the federal government to drop surprise policy pronouncements on a public (rightly) focused on squeezing in one last beach weekend before back-to-school shopping. Adept government agencies can slot a few paragraphs into the Federal Register that will dictate federal policy for decades without a ripple in the pond of public indifference.
Case in point: The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s decision to close off land in six states – 303,900 acres in all, in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah – for mineral exploration over the next 20 years, that being the maximum in federal-sentencing under Department of Interior rules.
What can happen in 20 years’ time? Let’s look backward to answer that question. 20 years ago, in August 1993, a business journal featured an article exploring the “Business Justification of E-Mail,” concluding that most companies would find email “necessary.” The first smart phone was introduced (Tech Trivia: Simon, by IBM). There were no iPods, iPad, iPhones – no iAnything. There were stories marking the first 10 million cell phone users (there are 6 billion cells in use today).
Along the way, manufacturers of those devices learned the necessity of arcane elements like Dysprosium and Neodymium, Tantalum and Tellurium and another dozen or more.
Where will the next 20 years take us? As the last 20 make clear, we have no idea. Even at the slowed-down pace of Moore’s Law – with computing capacity taking 3 years to double, not 18 months, 20 years is more than 6 “Moore Cycles.” Whatever we’re doing now with a hand-held or laptop, we’ll be doing 64 times faster in 2033.
What metals and minerals will power these new advances? In what alloys and what quantities? Once more, we don’t know. But thanks to the BLM, we do know that these metals won’t be mined in their 6-state “no dig zone.” So the U.S. will simply import these metals from elsewhere – or, more likely, the products of 2033 will likely be built elsewhere, where the metals are — and sold to us. Can you say “negative balance of trade?” “Reduced competitiveness?” “Outsourced jobs?” “Lower GDP and higher federal debt?” Hardly the kind of future our political class promises us.
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But it’s August. Who’s watching?
Anti-mining pressure groups, for one. The National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are all officially delighted with the BLM ban. (Historical note: When dealing with the critical mineral of his day – coal – Teddy Roosevelt threatened to end a coal strike by sending in federal troops to man the mines. So the storied conservationist and lover of the West was also a realist on matters of critical minerals and the need to mine them.)
Then there’s the irony in the BLM’s justification for its action. The rationale, as filed in the Federal Register: The BLM’s mining ban is meant “to protect 17 Solar Energy Zones…for future energy development.” By banning mining, these acres will be set aside for solar power farms. Where will we get the copper, indium, gallium and selenium essential to next-generation photovoltaic arrays to turn Sun into power? Don’t ask the BLM.
But as the saying goes, “Act Local, Think Global.” Out in the wider world, our ban is good news for miners in China and DRC Congo and from Angola to Zambia who will mine whatever metals we don’t – so that someone, somewhere will fabricate them into the solar panels of the future.
But again, it’s August. Who’s watching?
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