Congress rushes to boost US production of rare earths, minerals

26 May 2011 22:21  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--A bipartisan group of senators on Thursday introduced a bill to revive US production of rare earth elements (REE) and other critical minerals, saying it is a national imperative to free the country from foreign dependence and China’s “choke hold” on the global minerals market.

Eight Democrat and nine Republican senators joined in introducing the Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2011, which would order a nation-wide assessment of US rare earths and other mineral resources and accelerate permitting and funding for their development.

Introduction of the emergency legislation came just two days after expert witnesses told a congressional panel that US refining and other key energy and manufacturing industries could face disruptions unless federal policymakers move quickly to accelerate domestic production of a range of critical minerals.

Senator Kay Hagan (Democrat-North Carolina), a cosponsor of the bill, said that “Our dependence on foreign sources for critical minerals is unacceptable”.

Senator Jim Webb (Democrat-Virginia) noted that “just 15 years ago, more than two-thirds of our rare minerals came from US soil, but today we are entirely dependent on foreign imports”.

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources head testimony on Tuesday that the US is 100% dependent on foreign sources for the 17 minerals that make up the rare earth elements and 17 additional minerals that are critical to a wide range of US manufacturing and production.

Webb, also a cosponsor, said that the push to “reclaim our mineral independence” is a national imperative to sustain US economic and energy security.

Senator Dean Heller (Republican-Nevada) noted that “Some of the largest concentrations of rare earth minerals are in the US, but instead of developing our own resources, we are increasingly becoming more dependent on foreign countries”.

Senator Claire McCaskill (Democrat-Missouri) warned that “China’s choke hold on world markets diminishes our national security and threatens our economy”.  She was referring to the fact that China effectively is the sole global source for rare earth elements, accounting for 97% of worldwide production of the valuable minerals.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (Republican-Alaska), principal sponsor of the bill, said the measure would “revitalise the US critical minerals supply chain and reduce the nation’s growing dependence on foreign suppliers”.

According to a summary of the legislation, the bill would direct the US Geological Survey (USGS) to speedily determine which minerals are critical to US energy and manufacturing needs and then conduct a nation-wide survey of available resources.

It also would establish a multi-agency federal and state regulatory group to accelerate environmental reviews and permitting to speed mining and development of rare earths and other critical minerals.

It would make critical minerals development eligible for the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee programme and would require that department to develop plans for the more efficient use and recycling of those substances.

With its strong bipartisan support, the bill was expected to sail through committee hearings. A parallel bill has been introduced in the US House.

Paul Hodges studies key influencers shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By: Joe Kamalick
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