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Food for Thought: More Effective Critical Mineral Resource Policy via a Separate Regulatory Framework?

With its release of an official U.S. Government Critical Minerals List in 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior sent an important message about the growing importance of the metals and minerals underpinning 21st Century technology and the intensifying green energy shift.  Updated in 2021 by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the list effectively represents a new class of metals and minerals which has come to shape U.S. mineral resource policy.  As we enter 2024, it’s time for another Critical Mineral List update, on the 3-year timetable codified in federal law.

Against ever-surging demand scenarios, important progress to strengthen U.S. critical mineral supply chains has been made over the course of the past few years.

However, Peter Cook and Seaver Wang, analysts with the Breakthrough Institute, argue in a new piece that more could be accomplished through separate regulatory framework for this new class of minerals, which would allow for the coherent organization of “individual policies over the long term at scales commensurate with national progress toward a new technological age.”

They argue that because “existing processes do not manage critical minerals apart from other types of mining”policymakers are currently left with “piecemeal actions, like project grants and mapping campaigns.”Meanwhile, “continuing to treat all hardrock mining as a single inseparable bucket may encourage ineffective and unnecessarily broad, industrywide reforms.”

In their piece, Cook and Wang recommend the creation of a regulatory “infrastructure that systematically distinguishes critical minerals management from other hardrock mining, which policymakers can amend or augment as national needs evolve.”  This would, they argue, appeal to labor and industry stakeholders because it would allow for targeted support within the advanced technology sector rather than watered-down broad-based actions across the entire hardrock mining sector.

Ultimately, they say,

“a separate statutory classification and regulatory framework for critical minerals could confer numerous benefits, enabling more efficient proactive review of new mining areas without altering existing strong environmental standards, facilitating direct allocation of funding and staff toward critical mineral project permitting efforts, and allowing policymakers to design policies and regulatory changes that appropriately affect critical and non-critical mineral projects differently.”

They conclude:

“As the mineral commodity industry has evolved over the last 150 years, U.S. policy has adapted to produce our now-familiar separate locatable, leasable, and saleable frameworks. As the country’s economic, political, security, and environmental priorities have shifted over this period, so too have the ways in which the federal government oversees domestic natural resource development.  

This history of the evolution of the existing classifications provides both a template and precedent for modifying these definitions further, as the nation’s needs continue to change. As the United States prioritizes future competitiveness in numerous energy, computing, and other advanced technologies and seeks to revitalize long-neglected domestic supply chains, a new chapter in mineral resource classification seems both timely and appropriate.” 

Food for thought for policy stakeholders looking to strengthen U.S. supply chains as critical mineral demand scenarios continue to soar against the background of heightened geopolitical tensions, and the presidential race in the United States begins to heat up.