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Critical Minerals in Focus – U.S. Senate Full Committee Hearing on Domestic Critical Mineral Supply Chains

Bearing testimony to a growing awareness of our nation’s critical mineral resource challenge, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a full committee hearing on domestic critical mineral supply chains earlier this week.

The witness panel at the hearing, which E&E Daily described as “a largely pro-mining hearing that could serve as a blueprint for a potential deal on energy and critical minerals” featured three industry experts on the mining industry and two mining company representatives.

As pressures on critical mineral supply chains are mounting, there appears to be a cross-party consensus that, as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said during the hearing, it is “essential” to increase domestic mineral resource production and “reduce our country’s dependence on foreign-produced minerals,” with this being “as much a national security issue as (…) an environmental one.”

In her testimony, Securing America’s Future Energy’s Vice President, Critical Minerals Strategy Abigail Wulf highlighted the fact that “the 2020s will be a critical decade that will challenge the United States’ ability to consistently and effectively project its political, military, and economic strength. During this time,” she said,  “the production of batteries, electric vehicles (EVs), semiconductors, and other advanced technologies will take on increased geopolitical importance.”

Underscoring the importance of strengthening both domestic mining and processing, she stressed that “[t]he nation that prevails in controlling the manufacturing and distribution of these key industries will lead the global transition to a new energy future and the next industrial revolution, adding that ”[t]he United States is lagging behind, risking our position of global economic leadership, leaving us vulnerable to supply disruptions and dependent on nations that do not share our values.”

The hearing took place on the same day U.S. President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to encourage domestic production of the metals and minerals deemed critical for electric vehicle and large capacity batteries, a move which, according to  Bloomberg News affords mining companies access to $750 million under the Act’s Title III fund.

Meanwhile, pointing to the still onerous and often redundant procedure for mining companies to obtain permits for their operations in the United States, Sen. John Barrasso (D-WY) cautioned during the hearing that “unless the President streamlines permitting, we should not expect to see any meaningful increase in American mineral production.”

Increasing domestic mineral resource production will undoubtedly be met with opposition by environmentalists and Indigenous activists.  To alleviate some of their concerns, the Presidential Determination issued this week stated that subsequent actions “shall be conducted, to the extent consistent with the promotion of the national defense and applicable law, with strong environmental, sustainability, safety, labor, Tribal consultation, and impacted community engagement standards.”

Furthermore, as E&E Daily reports“[t]he same day as the [Presidential Determination was issued], the Interior Department published a notice in the Federal Register outlining plans to hold hearings and take public comments about changing current mining laws and regulations, including ways to improve Indigenous consultation.”

While much more remains to be done and valid concerns will need to be reconciled, the fact that Administration, Congress and other stakeholders are moving towards taking comprehensive steps to address our nation’s mineral resource challenge is encouraging.

As Sen. Joe Manchin told committee members during his opening remarks:

“Demand is increasing for minerals vital to clean energy and national security technologies, as well as for the everyday tools and comforts we take for granted. We must take action domestically or we’ll be putting our own security at risk by allowing China this power over our supply chains.”