A Case Study of a Valuable, Depleting Mineral in America

EMD-80-21: Published: Nov 30, 1979. Publicly Released: Nov 30, 1979.

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Phosphate is a primary plant nutrient which is absolutely vital to sustaining the Nation's agricultural output, and phosphate rock is the only practical source of phosphorous on a commercial scale. In order to assess the outlook for phosphate, GAO reviewed phosphate-mining techniques, the effects of environmental regulation on the industry, and methods being used to estimate the quantity of domestic phosphate reserves and resources.

As presently mined, high-grade phosphate deposits are being depleted. Over one-half of all phosphate production in the United States occurred in the last 12 years, and it is far from certain that the Nation's reserves will be adequate beyond the year 2000. In order to plan for the availability of phosphates in the future, a reliable information system is needed. The Bureau of Mines relies too heavily on unverified, proprietary data without judging their reliability. World-reserve estimates have fluctuated wildly from year to year and are even less reliable than domestic estimates. Environmental and land-use concerns are another factor which must be considered in planning phosphate availability. While past availability depended only on whether or not it was profitable to produce the mineral, it is being increasingly subordinated to environmental impact and competing desires for nonmining uses of public lands. Government policies which seek to minimize environmental damage diminish potential phosphate reserves significantly. A third factor essential to planning is an assessment of the world market outlook; the present trends of global production and imports indicate that availability is bound to have economic and probably strategic implications for the United States and its allies. Finally, while the Nation has traditionally relied on market forces to deal with shortages and has generally expected private industry to meet new demands, there is now a need for the Government to plan for the long-term requirements of the country.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed

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    Matter: Congress should require immediate work to start on the recommended review and be particularly alert to the Department of the Interior's response to this report, as required by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. In the same fashion, Congress should also carefully monitor the actions of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in assisting formulation of a comprehensive research and development program for phosphates. If OSTP persists in its negative attitude and abdication of responsibility, Congress should consider an alternative placement of responsibility for coordination of materials research and development issues of national concern.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should make a thorough review of the Nation's long-range phosphate position and report to Congress on the future availability of phosphates. This phosphate assessment should be completed no later than December 31, 1981, and include the following: (1) a comprehensive assessment of the phosphate reserves of the Nation and the world, with the Secretary judging the the need, if any, for Government verification of proprietary (source) records to the extent that the assessment is based on unverified data; (2) a determination of the extent that environmental concerns and land-use decisions are likely to restrict phosphate development; (3) a review and evaluation of alternatives to dependency on imports and assessment of their costs; and (4) a Department of Agriculture estimate of future needs for phosphates in agriculture and possible food production alternatives to depending on foreign fertilizer sources. OSTP in the Executive Office of the President should coordinate and make sure that an integrated research and development program for phosphates is begun and that OSTP contribute as appropriate to the comprehensive review and report.

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