Filed Under:Claims, Education & Training

The Nation’s Natural Resources

Part Five - Infrastructure Risk Management

In the old game where one had to guess some object by asking no more than 20 questions, the first was often “animal, vegetable, or mineral?” Minerals have made America the richest nation on earth, and it is minerals that will keep it ahead of the rest of the world in the 21st century.

Obviously minerals are not our only natural resource: There are our more than 300 million Americans with skills and talents in hundreds of thousands of areas. Therefore it could be said that people are perhaps our greatest resource. Animals—both in the wild and domestic—are resources for food, clothing, even fertilizer. Then there are our vegetable resources, not only agricultural products produced on farms, but also millions of acres of timber, grasslands and shoreline plants that are nurseries for fish and other seafood. What would our world be like without songbirds or game birds, or just plain old chickens? Each is a resource for something.

Iron and Oil

John D. Rockefeller was a vegetable merchant (probably selling vegetable oil) when Drake discovered oil in Pennsylvania. The site is now a historic park, and the story of Standard Oil is part of the story of America. Oil and gas are still produced in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere in the nation. Coal is a major mineral asset. For my “History of American Transportation” course at Emory University’s Osher Institute, one of the questions I ask on the initial quiz is what four types of coal are produced in America. Most guess it is anthracite, bituminous, and a few even get to sub-bituminous, but most forget lignite. Train-loads of metallurgical coal arrive daily at ports such as Norfolk for shipment to foreign steel mills.

Not only is coal production up in the Powder River Basin, but natural gas is becoming so plentiful that the price per unit is dropping. But is there still “gold in them thar hills”? You bet; gold and silver mining is also on the increase, along with other valuable minerals. Gold, of course, is still being prospected. Tourists can still pan for it in places like Juneau, Alaska, or Dahlonega, Georgia. Just don’t plan your retirement on what you’ll find.

The Hazards of Fracking

The water comes from wells deep into the aquifer—the same aquifer where local towns get their drinking water, and the same aquifer that environmentalists fear could end up being polluted. Yes, there are annual floods on Midwestern rivers, the Red, the Missouri and its tributaries, and occasionally even the Arkansas. However, the other rivers—the Cimarron, Canadian, Rio Grande or the Pecos—are often little more than dry creek beds. So much water is drawn from the Colorado as it separates Arizona from California that by the time it reaches Yuma there is only a trickle of water left.

Wars have been fought over water—and as the supply dwindles, or is polluted, wars will be fought again. Farmer Adams messes with his creek; Farmer B sues him. It’s the stuff of cowboy movies; only in the movies Farmer B shoots Adams.

One issue is what to do with the carbon dioxide that is captured. It is a gas, and if it is stored underground, it could leak out and poison whole neighborhoods. Hopefully some smart university scientist will come up with a way to break carbon dioxide down into ­carbon and oxygen, and solve the problem. After all, a diamond is nothing but pure carbon, compressed under pressure and heat. Hmm. Maybe we can turn the gas into diamonds.

National Parks and Treasures

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