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Mineral Resources of North America

Updated on April 4, 2014
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Among all the continents, North America is endowed with more than its relative share of the world's mineral resources, particularly those upon which the industry of the 20th century is principally dependent -coal, petroleum, natural gas, and iron.

North America has about one sixth of the known coal reserves of the world. Of this, about 91% is within the United States. Anthracite, practically the whole world production, comes from northeastern Pennsylvania. The principal producing bituminous fields in the United States are the Appalachian Field of the Allegheny and Cumberland plateaus, stretching from northwestern Pennsylvania southward into Alabama, and the East Interior Field of Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. Other fields include the West Interior Field of Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma; the Southwest Interior Field of Texas; and the North Interior Field of Michigan. The Great Plains, Rocky Mountain, and Pacific Fields contain, generally, coal of quality inferior to that in the East. While these fields are producing small amounts, their major significance is as reserves.

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Canadian coal deposits are principally in Nova Scotia and in Alberta and British Columbia. The coal of Nova Scotia is of high grade, while that in the West is inferior. Alaska's coal deposits are not well known. There are optimistic estimates of reserves, but remoteness from market and lack of adequate transportation facilities have prevented any significant development in Alaska.

Petroleum reserves are much less accurately known than are coal reserves. Yet, from all estimates, it is obvious that North America is relatively as well supplied with this mineral as it is with coal. The United States has been one of the world's leading producers since 1859 when production began, and still produces annually 16% of the world's total. The so-called Eastern Province, including parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, was the earliest producer and still produces some oil. The Midcontinent Province, in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, is the leading producing region of the United States. The California Province, mostly in the southern part of that state, and the Gulf Coast Province, including coastal Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, are the second and third most important U.S. regions. Alaska's Prudhoe Bay is the leading U.S. single producing field. Alaska produces about a quarter of the U.S. total, more than any other state (followed by Texas), with almost all of it coming from the Prudhoe Bay field.

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Canada, too, produces significant amounts of oil. Well over four-fifths of the total production comes from Alberta. In addition to the Leduc, Turner Valley, and other fields that have been worked since the 1940s, and in some cases decades earlier, Alberta has tar sands in the Fort McMurray region estimated to contain huge recoverable reserves. Operations began on the sands in 1966, though recovery projects slowed in the 1980s. But Canada's chief future source of petroleum is expected to be its offshore fields.

Early in the 20th century, Mexico was the world's second-largest oil producer. By 1996, however, it accounted for only 5% of total world crude oil production.

Natural gas occurs with petroleum, and the use of gas is growing rapidly. The United States produced almost 19 trillion cubic feet in 1995, or more than a quarter of the world total.

Canada and the United States are well supplied with iron ore, Mexico much less so. One of the world's richest iron-ore areas is the Mesabi Range of Minnesota's Lake Superior region. This great reservoir has been almost depleted of high-grade ore (ore of over 50% metallic iron). What remains is mostly low grade, but there are vast quantities of it, and new technologies are making the mining of it profitable. The Great Lakes tie this prime area to the coal of the northern Appalachian Field. Although Birmingham (Alabama) remains an important metallurgical center, its steelmaking importance (based on nearby iron ore and coal) has declined. Canada produces a significant amount of iron ore, most of it from Quebec and Labrador. North America contributes about 9% of the world's production.

North America is less well supplied with ferroalloys, but is a major producer of cobalt (Canada), molybdenum (United States and Mexico), nickel (Canada), tungsten (United States), and vanadium (United States and Mexico). Of the nonferrous metals, North America's principal lack is tin. Canada has one of the world's greatest known deposits of uranium ores, on the shores of Great Bear Lake. Lesser ores exist in the United States.

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