LESSON 14: MINERAL RESOURCES
In the United States in 1929, 55 percent of all revenue freight hauled by Class I railroads consisted of ‘products of the mines’. This classification included only mineral products before manufacture. If the same products after manufacture had been included, the total would have been approximately 75 percent. Thus, modern high-energy civilizations, as contrasted with all previous ones of a low-energy character, may truly be called mineral civilizations.
In all earlier civilizations the rate of energy consumption per capita per day has been low, the order at most of 2,000 or 3,000 kilogram calories of extraneous energy. In the United States, in 1929, this figure had reached the unprecedented total of 153,000 kilogram calories per capita per day. The significance of this can best be appreciated if we consider that this figure is responsible for the railroads, the automobiles, the airplanes, the telephone, telegraph and radio, the electric light and power; in short, for everything that distinguishes fundamentally our present state of civilization from all those of the past, and from those of such countries as India and China at the present time. Stated conversely, if we did not consume energy— coal, oil, gas and water power—at this or a similar rate, our present industrial civilization would not exist. Ours is a civilization of energy and metals.
Inspection of the growth curves in Lesson 12 shows us something that is rather startling, namely, that most of this industrial growth in the United States has occurred since the year 1900. Stated in another way, if from those curves we compute the amount of coal or iron that has been produced and used since 1900, we would find this to be greatly in excess of all the coal and iron produced prior to that time. Discovery of Mineral
Discovery of Minerals. It frequently is assumed by people interested in world social problems that such industrial growth as has taken place in North America and Western Europe is a mere accident of circumstances, and that it might equally well have occurred in India or China instead. A corollary to this assumption is that it is possible for these areas to develop high-energy industrial civilizations and that the only reason they have not done so thus far is due to the backwardness of the people.
Since we have found that high-energy civilizations depend upon the existence of abundant resources—energy and industrial metals—it is a very simple matter to determine the validity of such assumptions by considering the world distribution of these essential minerals.
Until 30 or 40 years ago, the knowledge of the world distribution of minerals was more or less in the category of the knowledge of the geographical distribution of land shortly after the discovery of the Americas. Maps of the known world in the sixteenth century showed certain land areas that were well known, such as parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia; other areas which were but partially known, such as the eastern boundary of the only partially explored New World; and other parts of the world which were totally blank, due to the fact that no knowledge of these parts whatsoever was available.
In the mineral map of the world prior to 1900, there were still large blank places representing areas as yet unknown. Since that time, these blank spaces have become almost non-existent. Quietly and unheralded, the prospector, followed by the geologist and the mining engineer, has penetrated to the utmost corners of the earth.
It is a well known geological fact that certain mineral resources only occur in large amounts in certain geological environments.
Oil, for instance, only occurs in sedimentary rocks which have not been too greatly folded or otherwise disturbed since their original deposition. In igneous rocks or in pre-Cambrian basement complexes, such as the region between the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay, or of the Scandinavian Peninsula, oil in large quantities cannot exist.
Iron ores, likewise, as Leith pointed out, have shown a remarkable tendency to occur in these very pre-Cambrian terrains of the United States, Brazil, India, and South Africa, from which oil is absent. Other mineral resources have their own more probable environments. Since these various major types of areas are known, it follows that the geography of the future mineral discoveries for the entire world may now be fairly well predicted.
Methods of Discovery. The intensity of prospecting and the number of people engaged in the search for new mineral deposits have in the last few decades increased tremendously. The old-fashioned prospector, with burro, pick and hammer, has been replaced by the modern highly trained geologist and mining engineer, traveling by automobile and by airplane. Areas are now mapped by aerial photography. Geophysical instruments are now available which enable the oil geologist to discover salt-domes and oil pools that are completely hidden beneath the surface of the ground. He has seismographs that enable him to make maps of geological structures at depths of 5,000 feet, and more, beneath the surface of the ground. For the use of the mining engineer there are electrical instruments capable of detecting metallic minerals buried several hundred feet under earth. By means of these methods the mineral geography of the earth is at present rather well known.
It is significant to note, as Leith has pointed out, that except for oil (and recently potash in the United States*), a major source of minerals has not been discovered in Europe since 1850, and in the United States since 1910. This seems to indicate that most of the discovering in these areas may have been done already.
Coal. What is the mineral geography of the world as it is now known? Consider coal, which is probably the best known of the major mineral resources.
It is interesting to note that the United States alone, according to the estimate of the International Geological Congress of 1913, possesses approximately 51 percent of the coal reserves of the entire world. Canada has about 16 percent of the world total. Of the remaining 33 percent, Europe has approximately a third, or 10 percent of the world’s total. Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia, all together, have only about 23 percent of the world’s total coal reserves.
Oil. In the case of oil, the United States in 1929 was producing 69 percent of the world’s total production.
* Within the last few years there has been discovered and New Mexico and Texas what promises to be the world’s largest supply of potash.
The proven oil reserves of the world in 1933 were, according to the estimate of Garfias, in a report read before the Society of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, approximately 25 billion barrels. Of these, 48 percent, or 12 billion barrels, were in the United States. This estimate of reserves represents only the differential between discovery and consumption of oil. Should discovery cease a reserve of 12 billion barrels would last the United States only about 12 years at the 1929 rate of consumption.
Iron. The iron reserves of the world are localized chiefly in a few areas. In the United States most of the iron produced comes from the region around Lake Superior, and the Birmingham district in Alabama. Foreign iron ores, in greatest abundance, are to be found in such regions as England, Alsace-Lorraine, Spain, Sweden and Russia. In South America, the largest reserves are found in Brazil. Other large supplies are found in India, South Africa, and Australia.
The United States in 1929 produced slightly less than 48 percent of the world’s total production of pig iron.
Copper. Next to iron, the most important industrial metal is probably copper. In 1929 the total world production of copper was 2,100,000 short tons, of which the United States in that year produced 1,000,000 short tons, or slightly less than 50 percent.
Of our major metallic resources, copper is probably the nearest to a forced decline resulting from a gradual exhaustion of high grade ores. Within the last few years large supplies of African copper have rapidly come into a prominent place in world production. It is quite possible that Africa may become the leading producer of copper in the future.
From what has been said with regard to the production and reserves of coal, oil, iron, and copper, it becomes evident that the United States is singularly well supplied with the world’s essential industrial minerals. In fact, it would not be overstating the case to say that the United States has the lion’s share of the world’s mineral resources. She is by far the best supplied of all the nations of the world, and the North American Continent surpasses in a similar manner all the other continents.
The Ferro-alloys. The United States, however, is largely devoid of certain highly essential industrial minerals, the group known as the ferro-alloys— manganese, chromite, nickel, and vanadium. While these minerals are required only in small quantities, they are essential for most alloy steels which are used in industrial processes, and but for them, modern high-speed machinery would be impossible. So essential are these alloys that in war time they have come to be known as ‘key’ minerals.
It is interesting to note in passing that for the period from 1910 to 1914, Germany’s importations of ferro-alloys were considerably in excess of her industrial requirements for that period. It is equally significant to note that at the present time the French importations are in excess of France’s present industrial requirements. Fortunately, Canada is the world’s leading producer of nickel.
Movement of Supplies. A review of the world mineral geography shows that by far the greater part of the world’s industrial minerals are located in the land areas bordering the North Atlantic, Western Europe, the United States and Canada. Supplies of individual minerals occur in other parts of the world in quantities sufficient to be important in the world production. Examples of this are to be found in the case of oil in Venezuela and Colombia, copper and nitrates in Chile, tungsten in China, tin in Bolivia and the Dutch East Indies, and iron ores in Brazil.
It has long since become axiomatic in the iron and steel industry that iron ore moves to coal for smelting, and not the reverse. Iron ore, for instance, moves from the Great Lakes region to the blast furnaces of Gary, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. In Europe, the iron ores of Sweden and of Spain move to the coal fields of England, France, and Germany.
A similar type of thing is true in the case of any essential industrial mineral when it occurs in a region devoid of sufficient other minerals to support a high-energy industrial system. Consider Colombia and Venezuela in the case of oil. Venezuela is third in the order of the oil producing countries of the world, and Colombia is sixth. Both countries have ample oil production to support an automobile traffic comparable to that of any other area. If one, however, should visit Bogota, the capital of Colombia, he would find only a few automobiles owned by government officials and the wealthier citizens. These can be driven around the town and for just a few miles out into the country, beyond which all automobile roads end. The cars have to be brought in by boat and by railroad. The country as a whole is almost totally devoid of automobiles, or of passable roads. Colombian oil, therefore, instead of supporting a domestic automobile traffic, flows to the industrialized areas of North America and Europe.
In a similar manner tungsten moves from China to the United States and to Europe, tin moves from Bolivia and from the Malay Peninsula, vanadium moves from Peru, copper and nitrates from Chile, and copper from South Africa.
Unequal Distribution of Resources. The significant thing about the world’s mineral geography is that industrial minerals in quantities large enough to play significant roles in modern industry are very unequally distributed about the face of the earth, and moreover, tend to occur in a comparatively small number of point sources. Most of the world’s iron, as we have pointed out, is derived from only about half a dozen regions. Most of the world’s oil comes from a similar number of localities. The world’s potash comes chiefly from the Strassfurt deposits in Germany. Most of the world’s nickel comes from two sources, the Sudbury district of Canada, and from New Caledonia.
The social significance of this unequal distribution of the world’s minerals is that industrial equality of the various areas of the earth’s surface is a physical impossibility.
So long as the world’s industrial motive power necessary to maintain high-energy civilizations is derived chiefly from the fossil fuels—coal and oil—the North American Continent and Western Europe will continue to dominate industrially the rest of the world.
The social idealist’s dream of a world state and world equality is based on an utter failure to consider the physical factors upon which the realization of such a dream depends. Unless some new and as yet untapped source of energy becomes available, the 475,000,000 of people in China are likely to continue at approximately their present standard of living.
The problem of maintaining an industrial civilization is a problem which is peculiar separately to each major industrial area. The laws of thermodynamics are universal. They are exactly the same in China, India, or Soviet Russia, as they are in the United States. The distribution of coal and oil in each of these areas, however, is radically different.
The North American Continent. Industrially, and from the point of view of resources, the North American Continent comprises the most nearly self-sufficient high-energy industrial area on the earth’s surface. When the tropical vegetation of Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies is combined with the temperate products of the United States and Canada, very little in the way of vegetable products need be obtained from the outside world. Likewise, when the mineral products of this area, chiefly the United States and Canada, be pooled for a common industrial operation, an almost complete mineral independence is achieved. Geographically and industrially, therefore, the North American Continent comprises a natural unit.
- World Minerals and World Politics, Leith.
- Mineral Economics, Tyron and Eckel. U.S. Minerals Yearbook.
- Mineral Raw Materials, U.S. Bureau of Mines Staff.