Lack of critical minerals processing capacity U.S. ‘Achilles heel’ – Wyden

U.S. Senate leaders say the nation must address inadequate U.S. mining processing capacity as well as promoting domestic mining of critical and strategic minerals.

During a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday on S. 1600, the Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2013, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, noted, “A crucial but too often neglected part of this [U.S. critical minerals] supply conversation is mineral processing.”

“Although mining is an important part of the supply equation, and S. 1600 encourages federal agencies to expedite permitting for new critical minerals extraction, it is the lack of processing capacity—transforming the raw materials that we pull out of the ground into the high-purity compounds needed for manufacturing—it is that challenge that is my concern and the concern of many experts,” he observed.

“That is our Achilles’ heel,” Wyden stressed. “Mining more ore in the U.S. will not reduce our dependence on foreign suppliers if the U.S. doesn’t develop the processing and refining technologies and infrastructure needed to turn that ore into useful products and to recycle them at the end of their useful lives.”

Ranking committee member, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska, responded, “I appreciate particularly your recognition that if we don’t have the processing capacity and ability, we are still left in a very vulnerable state.”

“We certainly have very strong supplies [of critical minerals] in my home state, and an opportunity to gain access to then. We’re looking at it very critically,” she noted.

“The problem though, is that we would then have to ship it to China to be processed, so once again, they have the leverage that we are trying to get around here,” Murkowski observed.

“All along the supply chain, our mineral-related capabilities have slipped,” she said. “Unless we take meaningful action, and soon, our economy and security could be jeopardized.”

“Our colleagues in the House have presented ideas to fix this problem,” Murkowski noted adding, “We should consider them fairly, just as we expect they will consider ours.”

“In the Senate, we have focused on the entire supply chain—by establishing a process through which minerals can be designated as critical; by adding accountability to the permitting process; by returning agencies to the important work of geological surveying; by seeking alternatives and encouraging recycling; and by promoting a workforce that can rise to the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead,” she stressed.

In testimony before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Jennifer Thomas, director, federal government affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, observed that a “new generation of sophisticated, high-tech and fuel-efficient vehicles will be increasingly reliant of a variety of commodities, many of which appear to meet the bill’s definition of a critical mineral.”

“Simply put, minerals are the building blocks of virtually every automobile on the road today. Ensuring affordable and reliable access to them is key to the continued success of the automotive sector,” she stressed. “Whether it’s the aluminum in automotive frames, the platinum in catalytic converters, or the lithium and nickel in electric vehicle batteries, minerals are vital components in every automobile on the road today.”

“…I feel this is an extremely important piece of legislation in placing a long needed emphasis on domestic security of critical minerals, Maj. Gen. (Ret) Robert Latiff told the committee. “The national defense implications are, in my opinion, profound.”

Dr. Latiff is the former chairman of the National Materials and Manufacturing Board and a member of the Air Force Studies Board of the National Academies.

Dr. Rod Eggert, professor of economics and business at the Colorado School of Mines, as well as deputy director of the Critical Minerals Institute, noted that government can play four important roles that facilitate well-functioning markets for mineral resources “and help ensure reliability of material supplies in the short term and availability of mineral resources in the long term.”

Those roles including encourage undistorted international trade; improve regulatory-approval processes for domestic resource development; facilitate provision of information and analysis; and facilitate research and education. He suggested S. 1600 covers three of those functions.

Jim Sims, vice president of corporate communications for Molycorp, offered the perspective of a company “that walked a regulatory pathway that took 15 years and more than 500 permits to restart rare earth production in California.”

“By launching a process to update and modernize critical minerals policies in the U.S., and by encouraging better coordination across the many federal agencies that oversee aspects of mineral development, this bill would provide additional regulatory certainty for all parties in the process,” Sims observed, “Increased regulatory certainty is a must if the U.S. is to encourage greater private sector investment in domestic mineral exploration, processing, and downstream supply chains that can help meet the needs of manufacturers here in the U.S. and around the world.”

“The bill’s directive to complete a comprehensive national resource assessment for each element designated as critical should help prioritize resource opportunities for both government officials and private sector interests,” he added.

“Strengthening the education and workforce training infrastructure related to critical material, a goal of this bill, is also a high priority,” Sims noted. “The U.S. lags behind many nations in this area, which in turn can negatively impact investment decisions by private sector companies in critical material supply chain development.”

S. 1600, the Critical Minerals Policy Act, has 19 co-sponsors including both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. “I believe we could very well send it to the President this year,” Murkowski declared. “That would be a great win for this country.”


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