Faced with dwindling support for economically expensive global warming energy policies, political leaders and much of the mainstream media have turned to the argument that we must wean ourselves off of conventional energy sources such as oil and coal for national security reasons. An analysis of conventional and alternative energy sources around the world paints a much more complex picture. Replacing conventional energy sources such as oil with electric batteries to power are vehicles and coal-fired power plants with windmills to heat our homes may actually increase national security risks.

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Countries use energy as an international bargaining chip. Threatening to withhold oil exports is not their only weapon. The New York Times reported that during the recent dispute between China and Japan over the detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain, the Chinese government blocked exports to Japan of a crucial category of minerals referred to as rare earth elements, which are used in products like hybrid cars, wind turbines and guided missiles. According to a Congressional Research Service Report titled "Rare Earth Elements: The Global Supply Chain," there are 17 rare earth elements which are fairly abundant in the earth's crust but not easily exploitable economically. The report states that the United States was once self-reliant in domestically produced rare earth elements, but has become 100 percent reliant on imports, primarily from China. World demand for rare earth elements is estimated at 134,000 tons per year with global production around 124,000 tons annually. The production-demand gap will widen as the Congressional Research Service projects the world demand to rise to 180,000 tons annually by 2012 with new sources lagging.

The United States has rare earth reserves in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Missouri, Utah, and Wyoming estimated to make up 15 percent of the world total. Those resources have not been mined due primarily to environmental concerns regarding radioactive hazards. If the United States decided to make development of rare earth reserves in this country a priority, it could take up to 10 years to bring those resources to market. Without the development of rare earth refining plants in this country, any material mined in the States would have to be sent to China for processing.

The United States, and Michigan in particular, are blessed with abundant natural resources. The orderly development of these resources has been a primary factor in the growth of America into a free and prosperous country. The country has undergone a historical transition of  public policy in regards to natural resources from exploiting these resources (wholesale clear cutting of white pine in Michigan) to utilizing conservation principles in resource development to the current trend of placing natural resources off limits to use.

It is critical that national and state policy reject the protectionism of modern-day environmentalism and replace it with the development of natural resources using sound conservation principles. It is vital to both economic and national security policy to view natural resources as an asset that can be responsibly developed, thereby lessening our dependence on foreign sources of energy. Any nation that is not capable and committed to developing its natural resources such as drilling for oil or mining rare earth elements is putting its future in the hands of other nations that may not have its best interest in mind.


Russ Harding is senior environmental analyst and director of the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.