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By J. P. Tangen
For Mining News 

What is so rare as the U.S. Senate?

Government body tempers will of the few to protect interests of the many in modern times, just as it did during the Roman Republic


Last updated 6/28/2009 at Noon

"What is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days." -James R. Lowell

The United States has many unique governmental features which distinguish it from other constitutional democracies, one of which is the role of our Senate. The United States Senate was inspired by the institution that governed the Roman Republic from its founding in 509 BC until its overthrow in 27 BC. That ancient body's impressive durability gives testament to the richness of its concept. Essentially, a group of elders, working together for the good of the Republic, and significantly protected from the vicissitudes of trends and tribulations, was able to reap the best the known world had to offer.

So too, our Senate is hugely responsible for the stability and success of our nation for the past 220 years. In our case, the so-called system of checks and balances has served to protect the nation from the whims of autocrats, whether an Obama or a Bush. Unlike other modern nations where the head of parliament is the head of government (imagine our future in the hands of Representative Pelosi), the power of the representative body is completely restrained by the 100 men and women who owe their standing not to the mob, but to the community, without regard to whether it is urban or rural, large or small, strong or weak.

It is the United States Senate, more than any other body that over the past 30 years has successfully diluted the urge of "the people" to "reform" our domestic mining industry out of existence. And the Senate remains our best hope for the near future. Despite the pressure on Congress to vitiate the general mining law, the deliberate way that the Senate goes about its business necessarily means that legislative implications will be long contemplated before the White House gets to apply its pen. Any change that may occur will be neither perfect nor pleasing, but it will be the best that we can do as a nation under the circumstances.

Where mining law revision affects Main Street is not so tied to abandoned mine lands as it is to economic evolution.

The emerging Chinese Titan not only holds much of our public debt but also has been aggressive in siphoning off our production capabilities and simultaneously has encouraged development of mineral resources which we use and need.

Rare earth metals are a clear example.

Wind power turbines will require neodymium magnets.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs require cerium, lanthanum, europium, terbium and yttrium.

Modern automobiles require all of these metals and praseodymium, dysprosium and zirconium, as well.

Although the second-largest, most concentrated, known rare earth deposit on Earth is located in the United States, 97 percent of the global mining of these metals is taking place in the People's Republic of China.

Initially, it may be of small consequence to realize that China dominates the world in producing rare earth oxides; however, what should be of concern is the emergence of China as a consumer of this production. It is projected that the Chinese may be consuming the entire global production within the next five years. In the first quarter of 2009, the Chinese export quota for rare earth materials was 25 percent lower than in the first quarter of 2008.

The technology that led to the invention of neodymium iron boron magnets, for instance, was developed in the United States and sold to China. NIB magnets are used in modern wind turbines. Five hundred sixty pounds of neodymium may be required in a single turbine. America has forfeited that production capability, and may, by extension, forfeit complete access to that technology if we succeed in driving our mineral industry off shore.

Obviously, extrapolating from the general to the specific depends on fragile logic; however, it can be seen that in this tiny corner of the world where things like the availability of computer hard drives are at risk - neodymium magnets are required for them, too - the implications are enormous. This same scenario is being replicated with other metals constantly. It puts our lifestyle and our security at substantial risk. Revision of the General Mining Law implies a cascade of similar unintended consequences. At this point our hopes are staked on the deliberations of the U.S. Senate. Perhaps they will save the Republic yet, once again.


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