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New Bills Seek to Lessen Dependence on Critical Minerals from Mainland China

On 2 May, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (Republican-Alaska) and committee ranking member Joe Manchin (Democrat-West Virginia), along with two co-sponsors, introduced the American Mineral Security Act (S. 1317). This legislation would designate a list of “critical minerals” and update that list every three years. It would authorise applied research and development and resource studies, including for recycling and replacements for critical minerals and mineral processing. Additionally, it would implement what Murkowski describes as “common sense permitting reforms” to speed up the process of federal mine permitting.

In arguing for the legislation, Murkowski’s office noted that in 2018 at least 50 percent of total U.S. demand for 48 minerals was supplied by foreign sources, and in the case of 18 of these minerals – including rare earth elements, graphite and indium – foreign sources accounted for the entire U.S. market.

Murkowski singled out mainland China in her remarks, noting that “our reliance on China and other nations for critical minerals costs us jobs, weakens our economic competitiveness, and leaves us at a geopolitical disadvantage.” She also said that domestic production of critical minerals is essential for security as well as for growth industries, including electric vehicles and energy storage.

On 4 April, Murkowski, Manchin and West Virginia’s other senator, Shelley Moore Capito, reintroduced the Rare Earth Element Advanced Coal Technologies Act (S. 1052), which would provide for the development of technology to extract rare earth elements from coal and coal by-products. The National Energy Technology Laboratory began studying extraction of rare earth elements from coal and coal by-products in 2010, and in 2018 West Virginia University opened a pilot rare earth extraction facility.

In introducing this bill, both Manchin and Capito spoke of a need to lessen U.S. dependence on mainland China. Manchin argued that the United States “should not be depending on China and other foreign nations for our supply of rare earth elements,” while Capito added that “rare earth elements are essential to our economy and national security, but the United States is currently dependent on foreign suppliers—particularly China—for this valuable resource.”

Both of these legislative approaches to reducing U.S. dependence on mineral imports had been introduced previously but were not enacted. U.S. energy policy has links to other economic issues, environmental matters and general problems of Washington gridlock. The senators may hope that raising security concerns about dependence on mainland China may assist in securing enactment of these provisions.

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