Although they enjoy a glut of gasoline at the moment, US motorists know their fuel supply depends on the uncertainties of imported oil. But few of them give much thought to the platinum catalyst on which their car's smog control system depends. Yet imports meet a higher percentage of the need for this critical material than is the case with oil.
The US imports 87 percent of the platinum-group metals it uses, with much of it coming from just two countries - South Africa (53 percent) and the USSR (22 percent). These metals - platinum, palladium, and iridium - are used widely in chemical and oil refining industries, as well as in automobile catalytic converters. In the case of manganese, which is essential for making steel and hence automobile bodies, imports account for 97 percent of US requirements.
Indeed, US dependence on imported strategic raw materials - resources essential to its industry and defense - is as much a continuing threat to the US economy and national security as is reliance on imported oil. Yet this has aroused nowhere near a comparable degree of public concern.
''It is a problem. But it doesn't cause waiting lines at the gas pump,'' observes Walter B. Moen, executive director of the Federation of Materials Societies (FMS). However, more than half a million scientists, engineers, and technical managers whose professional societies make up the federation are deeply concerned. In a statement issued on their behalf, the federation has pointed out:
''The United States depends heavily on foreign imports of more than . . . 90 percent of our total annual requirements of columbium, manganese, chromium, cobalt, bauxite (for aluminum) and platinum metals; between 75 percent and 90 percent of our requirements for tin and nickel; and between 50 percent and 75 percent of our requirements for zinc, antimony, tungsten and cadmium.''
The statement adds: ''A highly industrialized and technologically advanced nation such as the United States uses thousands to millions of tons of each of the forementioned metals and minerals, in addition to huge amounts of domestically available iron, copper, and lead. Significant perturbations in the availability and prices of these materials can have grave effects upon the national security, employment, and industrial health of the nation. . . .
''The technical organizations representing the materials community are convinced that an effective national materials policy is required to assure the United States of the continued availability of essential materials without disruption of the economy.''
This strong statement was issued in October 1980. The ''materials community'' is still waiting for such a national policy to emerge. So, too, is the US Congress, which made a similar statement in 1980 in a law that, among other things, required the executive branch to come up with such a policy in a report that was due last October. The Reagan administration missed that deadline. At this writing, it still had not submitted the report, although it was believed almost ready to do so.
In any evenD, while the report may outline an administration policy, it is unlikely to settle the vexing question of what the US should do about its raw material supply. Like the issue of meeting US energy needs, this involves a host of conflicting interests.
Secretary of the Interior James Watt says, ''The best answer to minerals availability is domestic production.'' Environmental groups leap to defend wilderness areas from mining encroachment. The mining industry says it is discouraged by environmental regulations, such as the Clean Air Act which has been hard on smelters, and by the unpredictability of federal policies. It wants new subsidies and tax breaks if it is to take advantage of any lands Mr. Watt might open up.
Technical groups such as FMS, seeing a need to develop alternative materials, urge funding more materials research at universities and educating more materials scientists and engineers. Yet the Reagan administration is reducing such funding, especially for the equipment that universities need to teach materials science. For its part, the administration is respondin' to pleas to build up the national stockpile of strategic raw materials. Yet when it anNounced it would sell silver, not now needed in th% stockpile, to buy more cobalt, a top priority mineral, it was criticized by t(oe using minerals for upsetting the minerals market, and the need for having more cobalt on hand was questioned.
With such a complexity of viewpoints, it might seem impossible ever to arrive at a coherent national policy. Yet those interested in this, such as Mr. Moen's ''materials community,'' say they are encouraged. They see a lot of progress during the past year toward the beginnings of a national consensus. For one thing, there is wide agreement among all concerned that such a policy is needed, that the US is overly dependent on foreign mineral supply, and that conflicting interests must find areas of workable compromise. There also is general agreement as to what, at the moment at least, are the truly critical mineral needs.
Of the minerals mentioned in the FMS statement, five appear at the top of most assessments of US vulnerability.
* Cobalt: Essential in aerospace applications, this comes first in the list. Besides its use in high-temperature alloys for jet engines, it goes into magnets and makes very tough drilling bits and cutting tools. US cobalt production phased out in 1972 after declining in the 1960s. Now some 93 percent of the annual national consumption of 20 million pounds is imported mainly from Zambia and Zaire. About a year ago, the stockpile had 41 million pounds. The administration announced plans to add 1.2 million pounds more. This would still leave it far short of the 85 million-pound target.
* Chromium: This gives hardness and corrosion resistance to stainless steels. Some 91 percent of US needs are met by imports, mainly from South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the USSR, although there are several other minor suppliers. US domestic production has been undercut by cheaper prices abroad, especially in South Africa. The stockpile had twice its target inventory of chromium iron alloys last year, but had met only half of its chromite ore and a fifth of its chromium metal targets.
* Manganese: The US has no known commercial deposits of this vital steelmaking element. It imports supplies mostly from South Africa, although other countries such as Australia, Brazil, and Gabon also export it. The US stockpile has a full manganese quota.
Hopes for an abundant manganese supply from deep-sea nodules, which also contain cobalt and nickel, are ever fresh. Concern over the uncertainty of mining rights under the proposed law-of-the-sea treaty led the Reagan administration to order a reassessment of the US negotiating position. Without guaranteed rights to specific mining sites, no US company will invest in deep-sea mining. However, even were such uncertainties resolved tomorrow, resource experts doubt that the nodules could become a significant source of supply in less than a decade or longer.
* Platinum: With South Africa and the USSR as the main suppliers, there is wide agreement that the US supply of platinum-group metals is highly vulnerable. Canada, however, is an alternative source. The stockpile last year had only about 35 percent of the platinum, 42 percent of the palladium, and 17 percent of the iridium called for.
* Titanium: Although some 90 percent of the titanium used in the US today goes into lead-free white paint, this strong light-weight metal is becoming increasingly important in aerospace applications. Only 14 percent of the titanium dioxide used in paint is imported. But all of the semiprocessed titanium metal sponge for aerospace and industrial uses comes from abroad, mostly from Australia. The stockpile last year had less than 20 percent of its quota of sponge and that quota had itself been raised from 130,000 to 195,000 tons. In a pinch, the US could produce titanium from its own low-grade ores.
While there is wide agreement that the US is unwisely dependent on foreign suppliers for such minerals, there are differing perspectives.
Congressmen who have crusaded for a national minerals policy - especially Rep. Don Fuqua (D) of Florida, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, and Rep. Jim Santini (D) of Nevada, chairman of the Mines and Mining Subcommittee - see it in terms of a ''resource war'' with the Soviet Union. They note the USSR's own mineral self-sufficiency, the key role of southern Africa as a US supplier, and Soviet commercial and political penetration of such a region. They view with suspicion the fact that, in 1978, an invasion from Angola caused Zaire's cobalt price to quadruple just after the Soviet Union had bought a lot of the mineral. They see the Soviet block maneuvering to starve the Western world of minerals.
''The Soviet Union has moved into the international resource arena armed with a strategy of confrontation that extends beyond economic competition, but which falls just short of conventional military conflict,'' Mr. Santini has said. It is a position with which Alexander M. Haig Jr. publicly agreed before becoming secretary of state. It is embodied in the conservative Heritage Foundation's ''Mandate for Leadership,'' which became a basic document within the Reagan administration.
Not everyone concerned about mineral supply sees it that way. For example, defense analyst James Thomason of the Center for Naval Analysis, has said it is ''simplistic to equate US vulnerability to US import reliance.'' He notes that, even in a protracted war, the US could meet defense needs for cobalt from its stockpile, in-ground resources, and Canadian supplies. He even questions whether another 1.2 million pounds had to be added to the stockpile. Although the inventory is short of its target, he points out it covers two years' needs.
Mr. Thomason would like to see a more rational approach to alleviating US mineral vulnerability than a panic reaction to what he considers exaggerated fears of a resource war. Such an approach, he says, should include a new assessment of vulnerability that takes full account of alternative sources, substitution for imported critical materials, and more precise evaluation of the true cost of an import cutoff for a given mineral balanced against the likelihood that such a cutoff will happen.
Certainly, US European allies consider such fears exaggerated. A background document from the Commission of the European Communities points out that ''the Community has to import 75 percent of its raw material needs, Japan 90 percent, whereas the USA imports only 15 percent'' in terms of total raw material supply. Given this basic fact, the community sees mineral seGurity not in terms of diplomacy designed to counter Soviet machinations but in terms of a new level of cooperation with third-world nations.
''The linchpin of any strategy should be to improve relations with producing countries and in particular with those that are most likely to use the income they earn from exporting raw materials to buy European goods,'' the document says. It adds: ''Europe should face the facts: the third world wants industrialization, and will get it with or without European help. It could bring with it a new pattern of trade relations, with Europe supplying plant and machinery, buying back processed products, and then selling higher-technology finished goods. This new relationship would reproduce on a different level the degree of mutual interest necessary to guarantee long-term satisfaction of needs on both sides. Europe's security of supply is not simply therefore a question of raw materials.
''Will it be confrontation or interdependence that characterizes Europe's relations with the third world, whose stagnation or development will dictate the future of the planet?'' the document asks. It is no wonder that Western European countries have shown little interest in strategic stockpiles or the concept of an East-West ''resource war.''
In the US, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society also view that concept suspiciously. While agreeing on the need to cut US import dependency, they feel the threat of a ''resource war'' is being used as an excuse to relax pollution standards and open up wilderness lands to mining.
Interior Secretary Watt's statements and efforts to make public lands more open to mineral exploration has reinforced this concern. So, too, has the Heritage Foundation's '' Mandate for Leadership,'' which calls for more access to federal lands; relaxing of environmental, health, and safety laws that are claimed to discourage both mining and minerals processing; tax laws more favorable to mining; and some form of price support.
At this writing, environmentalists were especially worried by a bill introduced by Mr. Santini that would extend the deadline for mineral exploration in wilderness areas from 1983-84 to 1993-94. It would give the secretary of the interior more authority to release public lands for exploration or mining and require the secretary to make an inventory of domestic strategic mineral resources within three years. It would also amend tax laws to favor mining investment, establish a White House council to coordinate a national minerals policy (as would a bill introduced by Mr. Fuqua), and create a revolving fund to buy and sell strategic minerals.
Alarmed that the new authority given the secretary of the interior, particularly, will mean a new assault on wilderness areas, environmental groups oppose the legislation. The Audubon Society, for example, says it ''agrees that wise development of domestic strategic minerals is a matter of national importance and that reforms in federal law and procedures are needed . . . but the public lands provisions of (the Santini bill) do not address this.'' It adds that ''the society remains ready to work with the committee in developing a sound minerals policy that balances development with protection.'' The Sierra Club has said essentially the same thing.
For his part, Mr. Santini says environmental groups misunderstand both his purpose and that of his bill. He is not anti-environmental, he says. Noting concern that his bill would allow mining in national parks, he says that is not his intention and offers to work with environmentalists to add any language to the bill that would safeguard parks. There has been concern also that a provision to make mining a ''dominant use'' of multi-use wilderness areas would give mining overriding priority. Not so, Mr. Santini says. It would merely give mining equal status with other important uses.
Mr. Santini insists that he is concerned with the environment. He explains that his main aim in this bill is to find out what minerals there may be in wilderness areas, not throw such areas open to exploitation indiscriminately. Indeed, the House Interior Committee on which he serves has restrained Secretary Watt from doing just that. Acting under authority given to it by law, it totally withdrew the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat, and Great Bear Wilderness areas in Montana from mineral leasing last year when it learned that such leasing was imminent. It also forced Watt to agree to an informal moratorium on any such leases in designated wilderness areas until next June.
In a comment not intended for direct attribution, one congressional aide said there is relatively little point in mining wilderness areas for minerals that may not be all that strategic and neglecting more important things such as improving relations with Canada and Mexico, who have minerals that are critical.
''The trouble is,'' he observed, ''we don't see Watt as an internationalist. He's too narrow.''
This echoes the environmentalists' own position. Bill Curtiss, attorney with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, asks: ''Does it make sense to open US resources of strategic minerals to foreign developers and to export? And if it is true that relying on foreign sources is a security risk, why is it reasonable to mine and consume all of our own resources as rapidly as we can?'' Environmental groups would rather see more reliance placed on cultivating reliable foreign sources, on conservation at home, and on a more intensive search for substitute materials.
Thus it is that the US heads into 1982 with a new consensus that it has made itself unwisely vulnerable in relying too heavily on imported materials and that a workable national policy to deal with this must be evolved. However, as to the elements of that policy, the battle lines are drawn.