Uncle Sam Weighs His Resources (Mar, 1948)

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Uncle Sam Weighs His Resources

Buried treasure—coal and gold, iron ore and oil-—and other resources make the U. S. rich. The question is: Will they hold out?

By Bill Reiche

HOW BIG is America’s bank balance? Our savings account is not the cash in the federal treasury or the total money in circulation; money is only a working symbol of a nation’s economic wealth. The bank balance that really counts—that makes the difference between prosperity and depression — is the raw materials in and above the ground.

Nobody knows the exact extent of scores of vital natural resources buried in the earth, without which our civilization would rapidly about face to that of the Stone Age.

We could find out by means of an exact geological mapping of the nation, of which only 10 percent has ever been adequately surveyed, at a cost of a billion dollars and 20 years’ time, according to Interior Secretary J. A. Krug. In a recent survey of America’s needs and resources by the Twentieth Century Fund, an independent, endowed organization, we are reminded that we are a naturally rich but spendthrift nation. More than any other country, with the possible exception of the Soviet Union, it states, we have the resources we need within our own borders. But in almost every category we are the world’s leading consumer and, in many important categories we use more than the rest of the world combined.

Our national-resources bank balance is important. Shortages of vital materials would mean higher prices and fewer jobs; the exhaustion of first-grade iron ore might result in the employment of three or four times as many men to extract an equivalent amount of the metal from the earth in second and third-rate ores, thereby dislocating our domestic economy through wholesale shifting of labor.

In his recent report to President Truman on national resources and foreign aid, Secretary Krug states: “. .. raw-material resources are being put to use at rates that exceed past peacetime records. This unprecedented economic activity has resulted in the attainment of a gross national product, or total value of final goods produced or in progress, of 204 billion dollars in 1946 and a rate of 225 billion dollars annually for the first six months of 1947 . . .”

Against the possibility of another war must be considered the availability of strategic materials. During a war everything from wheat to industrial diamonds is of strategic importance. But in some of the most critical materials we have either very minor reserves or none at all.

It’s difficult to estimate the reserves of our natural resources. A figure on how long reserves of a given material will last at a given rate of consumption means very little when we do not know the extent of new reserves which will be discovered within that period. But the Bureau of Mines and the Geological Survey have reported to a sub-committee of the Senate Committee on Public Lands an estimate of our reserves of two score minerals.

The problem children in this family of minerals are petroleum, lead, zinc and copper—they present the most serious scarcity problems.

Proved petroleum reserves give us about a 15-year supply.

By using the rule of thumb that potential reserves approximate those known, we can estimate that we have enough to last us three decades. Oil has held a leading place in the “easy come easy go” category of raw materials. A Johnny-come-lately among fuels, it was the source of only 4.5 percent of the energy produced here in 1899, but by 1945 it accounted for more than 32 percent.

Large reserves of petroleum may be discovered before we hit the bottom of the barrel, but if not, there are alternative methods of providing liquid fuels. Oil-shale deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are considered potential sources of five times the amount of oil in our proved petroleum reserves, but production costs might run from 50 to 100 percent higher than at present. In addition, big pipe lines would be required to transport the oil to the Midwest and Eastern markets.

The hydrogenation of coal, an old British and German process now being pioneered in this country by the Pittsburgh Consolidation Coal Company and Standard Oil, is another ace in the drying hole. Production costs by this method would run 50 percent higher than with shale, but transportation costs would be less since coal is more centrally situated.

Lead, with only a 10-year supply in sight, is everybody’s headache since the shortage is worldwide and in some of its major applications substitution is virtually impossible. These include storage batteries and cable coverings. Consumption of the heavy metal has tapered off from the wartime high but is likely to continue at an advanced level.

All the lead being used today cannot properly be called raw material since much of it is salvaged. Conservation of this material has been practiced to some extent in the paint industry, where titanium, derived from rutile and ilmenite, now is used along with lead. Some authorities say titanium is superior to lead in paints. Thousands of tons of lead are burned up annually, however, in anti-knock gasoline —a procedure considered wasteful by persons who believe high-test fuel can be made without consuming a vanishing mineral.

Our supply of zinc, domestically estimated to last 20 years, will probably depend on imports of more than 50 percent. This metal is likely to be replaced by a number of substitutes, such as titanic oxide for zinc oxide, aluminum for castings and steel, plastics and glass for sheet metal.

Copper, a work horse known since ancient times, is devoted to many important products. A quarter of it goes into electrical manufacturing, an eighth into wire and rod, a tenth each into building and automobiles and the remainder into light and power lines and miscellaneous products. With production in the next few years running an estimated 33 percent behind demand we shall have to import copper.

Stockpiling of critical materials from foreign sources as insurance in case of war is on a small scale and some skepticism concerning its long-range success has been expressed. Doubts are based on two factors: To be successful it will cost billions rather than millions of dollars, sums which are subject to the approval of a Congress which changes annually; and, such stockpiling is in reality part of an arms race, which means that exporting nations may feel it is against their interests.

Some of the materials to be piled and their uses are: antimony (compounds, lead alloy); asbestos; chromium (steel alloy, plate); copper; diamonds (cutting tools); lead; manganese (steel alloy); nickel (steel alloy); tantalum (electronic tubes, cutting tools); tin; tungsten (steel alloy, cutting tools, electronics); zinc; bauxite (aluminum); cobalt (cutting and die metals); graphite (lubricant, making of crucibles); and mica (electronic equipment).

The iron-ore outlook might be considered alarming in view of the federal estimate of only 73 years’ reserves (the Twentieth Century Fund sees only enough high-grade ore for 11 years) but there are vast reserves of brown ores and magnetite which experts say we can learn to recover economically. Bauxite isn’t very plentiful, but aluminum can be made from clays which we have in quantity.

Magnesium, baby of the mass-produced metals, mates nicely with aluminum, manganese and zinc and can be “mined” from sea water, although brine wells, magnesite and dolomite ores are richer sources. We have lots of nitrogen, potash and phosphate rock to fertilize the earth—if we don’t let the earth get away from us.

We are said to be only six inches from starvation, the half foot of fertile topsoil that covers our productive land. The Department of Agriculture says that of our 460 million acres of high-class cropland, all but 70 million needs protection from erosion. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Engineers are combining their efforts in the Missouri River basin to save soil, control floods, provide water for irrigation and industrial power.

The Twentieth Century Fund estimates that an annual depletion of about 16 billion board feet of lumber is whittling down our forests slightly, but feel that better fire control, and increasing use of substitutes leave us with the future secure. The Forest Service of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, however, gloomily reports that our present lumber shortage may grow worse rather than improve because we are not growing enough trees. It sees a need for about 42 billion board feet of lumber in the coming years and a maximum output of about 33 billion board feet.

Our water power is by no means fully developed and, if it were, it could produce about one fourth the energy produced by coal each year and 40 percent of that produced by petroleum and natural gas.

Standing out like a beacon among our resources is uranium, the mighty metal which provides the charge for the atom bomb and may, within comparatively few years, be an important source of industrial power. The most recent Bureau of Mines Mineral Yearbook reports that we had important reserves, possibly second only to those in Canada and the Belgian Congo, before World War II, but security restrictions blanket the results of what must have been incomparable prospecting since 1939. Qualified authorities estimate the advent of commercial electric power from this source anywhere from 1951 to 1960.

The estimates of our wealth contained in a recent report by the Bureau of Mines and the Geological Survey are in the table below. The reserves are expressed in years of consumption at the average annual rate of consumption from 1935 to 1944:

Magnesium. .Unlimited
Bituminous Coal
and Lignite……4386
Phosphate Rock … 600
Helium …….235
Anthracite Coal … 187
Molybdenum…… 157
Rutile…………. 124
Potash ………… 99
Iron Ore ………. 76
Ilmenite ………. 73
Arsenic ……….. 55
Natural Gas …… 55
Cobalt ………… 53
Sulphur ………. 39
Bismuth ………. 36
Fluor Spar……….33
Bauxite ………….23
Zinc …………….20
Gold …………….19
Petroleum ……….15
Silver ……………13
Cadmium ………..11
Lead …………….10
Vanadium ……….8
Manganese ……….4
Platinum Metals …. 3
Antimony ………..3
Mercury …………2
Tungsten ………..2
Tantalum ……….. 1
Chromite.. .Less than 1

The same report states that we have negligible reserves of mica, flake graphite, tin, long-fiber asbestos, nickel, industrial diamonds and quartz crystal.

Even though we’re well off as a nation, experts advise us to draw with care on our bank balance, cashing in our natural resources as slowly as possible.

1 comment
  1. Hip2b2 says: March 3, 20087:53 am

    While the conclusion of the study is correct, that resources are finite and have to be conserved, the study as a whole is obviously flawed with time lines exaggerated beyond belief.

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