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Alaska Holds Key to Addressing Our Nation’s “Achilles Heel” – Conference Shifts Policy Community’s Focus on Critical Minerals in the Arctic

The global push towards net zero carbon emissions against the backdrop of rising geopolitical tensions and associated supply chain challenges has undoubtedly directed stakeholder attention to the need to strengthen critical mineral supply chains.

However, as followers of ARPN well know, the challenges of detangling supply chains and decoupling from adversary nations, i.e. China, are immense, and warrant a comprehensive all-of-the-above approach to mineral resource security.

A recent policy event in Washington, DC has brought the focus back to an area that holds great promise for the U.S. as it seeks to re-shore its critical mineral supply chains: Alaska.

A two-day summit hosted las week by the Department of Energy Arctic Energy Office, the Wilson Center, Rand Corp. and the University of Alaska entitled “Critical Minerals in the Arctic: Forging the Path Forward” brought together state and federal policy leaders – including ARPN’s Dan McGroarty, who served as co-moderator of one of the non-public panels — to advance “policy recommendations for development of critical mineral resources in the Arctic, in the context of U.S. national security, energy, climate, and technology goals.” 

The event built upon an inaugural August 2022 conference entitled “Alaska’s Minerals: A Strategic National Imperative” hosted by the University of Alaska, U.S. Arctic Research Commission and the Wilson Center, which coincided with a USGS announcement that the state was slated to receive more than $6.75 million in funding for geologic mapping, airborne geophysical surveying, and geochemical sampling in support of critical mineral resource studies in the state.

The funding has merit.

As Brett Watson, assistant professor of applied and natural resource economics at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska, Anchorage, Steven Masterman, affiliate of University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and Erin Whitney, Director of the Arctic Energy office, U.S. Department of Energy wrote in a read ahead document for the event,

“Alaska’s complex geological history has led to formation of a wide array of mineral deposit types containing commodities many list as critical. Alaska either has, is, or could produce almost all of the commodities on the US Geological Survey’s 2022 list of critical minerals. Alaska is the largest producer of zinc in the nation, contains the nation’s largest graphite deposit, is the state with the only domestic tin resources and, has been a producer of critical minerals in times of national need, e.g. During WWII Alaska contributed tin, PGE’s, chrome, tungsten and antimony for the war effort. Most of the commodities produced to support the war effort have not been significantly produced since, and the resources remain in place, creating a ripe environment for meeting the nations need for these critical minerals.”

Keynoting the event’s second day, Alaskan U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski cited China’s recent decision to impose export restrictions on gallium and germanium as a real time example of critical minerals really being our nation’s “Achilles Heel.”   While acknowledging that progress has been made – Murkowski cited the U.S. government’s Critical Minerals List and key pieces of federal legislation such as her American Mineral Security Act, the bipartisan infrastructure package, some “gentle” permitting reforms of which we need more, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Defense Production Act of 2022 — but acknowledged that all of these steps are merely a beginning, and that more must be done.

Chiefly among the things that need to be done, according to Murkowski, are more mapping, more permitting reform, “opening more valves of federal support,” and “maybe learn[ing] on the fly when it comes to processing and refining.” Perhaps equally important, she said, was turning the tide of public opinion, which too often is “agnostic or downright hostile to mining.”

Murkowski cited the example of natural graphite, for which the United States has long been 100% import dependent as one of the promising opportunities Alaska holds for reducing our overreliance via the Graphite Creek deposit owned by Graphite One, Inc., which USGS has deemed the largest U.S. graphite deposit and among the largest in the world.  With Alaska home to many critical minerals, the Senator called on stakeholders and the policy community to engage in more dialogue and devise ways in which federal policy could support and strengthen projects like Graphite One’s, because the issue of critical mineral resource security is “too key to Alaska’s future, it’s too key to our country’s future.” 

Here’s hoping that stakeholders are listening.

The Wilson Center provides publications related to the conference, as well as complete video streaming on its website and on its YouTube channel, and will make proceedings from the tabletop exercise and briefs from the working sessions publicly available once finalized.