Russia is certainly making headlines this week.
Quite obviously, much of the media attention is focused around President Vladimir Putin’s declaration that Russia has approved a vaccine for the coronavirus (after less than two months of testing) — but developments in the critical minerals realm also warrant attention:
A top Russian government official has told Reuters that Russia plans an investment of $1.5 billion in rare earth minerals in its quest to become the biggest REE producer after China by 2030.
The move comes at a time when other countries, including the United States, are trying to curb their over-reliance on foreign critical minerals against the backdrop of growing tensions with China, which has long held the pole position in the race to control the global REE supply chain.
According to Reuters, Russia is looking to attract investors for eleven projects designed to increase the country’s share of global REE output to 10% by 2030, allowing for Russia to “become almost self-sufficient in rare earth elements by 2025 and start exports in 2026.”
While it appeared that U.S. efforts to promote domestic critical mineral resource development were finally gaining traction in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic having laid bare our mineral resource supply chain challenges and over-reliance on foreign (and especially Chinese) supplies, policy may once more become the victim of politics in this watershed election year.
Reform-minded lawmakers have put forth several legislative initiatives, and have even formed a bipartisan “Critical Materials Caucus.” However, while critical minerals provisions were added to the latest round of COVID relief stimulus packages, chances of their passage have been dwindling as partisan tensions continue to flare.
As attempts to keep the momentum for resource-related policy reform appear to have come to an impasse in Congress, researchers are forging ahead to provide innovative solutions that not only transform the way we use certain metals and minerals, but have the potential to help alleviate our over-reliance issues.
The Department of Energy has stepped up its efforts to promote collaboration between its research hubs and the private sector to look for ways to diversify mineral resource supply, develop substitutes and drive recycling of critical minerals and rare earth elements. Some recent initiatives include “using a high-speed shredder that turns old computer hard drives into scrap containing significant amounts of REE content,” and “recovering nickel, cobalt and manganese from disassembled electric vehicle battery packs.”
Meanwhile, in the private sector, a rare earths pilot plant processing facility situated in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, which will focus on group separation on REEs in to heavy, middle, and light rare earths, has received the required permits and officially opened. According to media reports, “USA Rare Earth’s pilot plant is the second link in a 100% US-based rare earth oxide supply chain, drawing on feedstock from its Round Top deposit.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the U.S. had begun to enter into cooperative agreements with allied nations to ensure future supplies of critical materials, specifically with Canada and Australia.
Against the backdrop of the upcoming 2020 elections, finding policy consensus may be more than an uphill battle. However, for the sake of our national security and economic wellbeing, lawmakers would be well-advised to reach out across the political aisle to foster a policy environment that promotes an all-of-the-above approach on critical minerals and harnesses the United States’ vast domestic mineral potential.