Bearing testimony to a nascent – and long-overdue – broader awareness of our nation’s over-reliance on foreign mineral resources, three U.S. senators have introduced new legislation aimed to reduce U.S. dependence on Chinese imports of rare earth elements (REEs).
REEs are key components of a wide range of high-tech products across all walks of life – ranging from consumer electronics over industrial over wind turbines to electric vehicles and guided missiles. Meanwhile, the U.S. is nearly 100 percent import-reliant on REEs, a market almost exclusively cornered by the Chinese.
ARPN and members of the ARPN panel of experts have long pointed out the dangers of this over-reliance. In the words of Jeff A. Green, “[w] have gifted China robust trade leverage should they chose to use it.” Pointing to a 2010 example of China’s previous politicking with this leverage he continued:
“China could easily cripple American supply chains and significantly limit our ability to produce advanced radar and weapon systems by limiting or disrupting the supply of any one of these minerals. Allowing a non-allied foreign nation to control such a broad swathe of critical minerals is a significant security threat to the U.S. and its warfighters.”
Introduced by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the “Rare Earth Element Advanced Coal Technologies Act (REEACT),”seeks to change that. It aims to provide federal funds for projects — run under the auspices of the Department of Energy — to develop domestic technology for REE extraction from coal and coal byproducts in order to re-establish a U.S. domestic supply chain.
According to the press release issued by Sen. Murkowski’s office, “[t]he National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) began studying the potential of extracting rare earth elements from coal and coal byproducts in 2010, and expanded its REE research efforts in 2014. In 2016, NETL’s Rare Earth Elements (REE) from Coal and Coal Byproducts RD&D Program awarded two grants to West Virginia University for researchers to evaluate the potential use of REEs from coal byproducts in the region. In July 2018, West Virginia University, in collaboration with NETL, opened a pilot scale rare earth extraction facility to continue its research towards commercialization. REEACT authorizes an annual appropriation of $23,000,000 per year to the Department of Energy through 2027.”
Says Sen. Capito:
“Rare earth elements are essential to our economy and national security, but the United States is currently dependent on foreign suppliers—particularly China—for this valuable resource. “As it turns out, rare earth elements can be extracted from coal and its byproducts, including fly ash and acid mine drainage, and extracting these materials provides a financial incentive for cleaning up legacy mine sites. This legislation would help support the research and development of these technologies, a win-win-win for Appalachia’s economy, the environment, and our national defense.”
The bill ties into the broader effort to strengthen the United States’ mineral and economic security, in the context of which Sen. Murkowski is expected to “introduce standalone legislation aimed at streamlining the permitting process for lithium and other mines, bolstering state and federal studies of domestic supplies of critical minerals and encouraging mineral recycling, among other topics,” according to government sources.
Of course, ARPN will be keeping tabs on all these efforts, so check back for updates in the coming weeks and months.