Tech Need for Rare Earth Elements May Fuel Rare Bipartisan Response
David P. Clarke - Clarke Communications Consulting
Clarke Communications Consulting
Current Issue
David P. Clarke

Some Democrats and Republicans want to end the U.S. dependence on China for rare earth elements. REEs are essential for electric vehicles, energy storage batteries, and solar panels. They are also used in jet fighters and other military materiel. At the same time, President Biden wants U.S. greenhouse gases to be slashed 50 percent by 2030, unthinkable without a massive deployment of clean energy technologies. Is this a rare opportunity for bipartisan policy?

According to U.S. representatives from Texas Lance Gooden (R) and Vicente Gonzalez (D) and others, the answer is a clear yes. “This should not be a partisan issue,” the lawmakers said in introducing their Reclaiming American Rare Earths Act in April. The bill, one of several REE proposals, would enact a permanent tax deduction for mining, reclaiming, or recycling REEs in the United States and support developing domestic supply chains for the materials. Currently China dominates 80 percent of REE supply chains.

Both Biden and former President Trump recognized the need for domestic production of these critical minerals with government support, Gooden and Gonzalez said in emphasizing the issue’s bipartisan nature.

Case in point: On February 24, Biden signed an executive order that launched a 100-day review of U.S. supply chain strengths and weaknesses across four key industries, including critical minerals.

In June 2019, the Trump State Department announced a multinational Energy Resource Governance Initiative to help build sustainable REE supply chains. At his April 23 Leaders’ Summit on Climate, Biden embraced the initiative, noting that its focus has expanded to include “greening mining operations” in addition to re-using and recycling key REEs.

Although safeguarding REE supplies should be bipartisan, Democrats and Republicans are “talking past each other,” says Joe Britton, executive director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association, a full supply chain coalition advocating for 100 percent EVs by 2030. During a May 5 House hearing on decarbonizing the transportation sector, GOP lawmakers focused on China’s REE advantage and African child labor concerns as a reason not to invest in EVs, while Democrats see dozens of reasons for doing so.

In testifying at the hearing, Britton stressed that the United States “cannot be on the sidelines” while China and other countries continue solidifying their control over sectors like critical commodities, processing, and manufacturing. He noted that Tennessee’s Republican governor called a $2.3 billion EV battery plant facility being built in Spring Hill the “largest single investment of economic activity in the state’s history.”

“That’s our opportunity,” Britton said. In expanding the EV and clean energy sectors, the United States will prioritize materials needed to achieve net-zero emissions and could support that with such policies as tax incentives. Britton believes that with “critical mass” for battery manufacturing and a “strong market signal” on the U.S. economy’s direction, investments will arise to relocate the full REE supply chain domestically, including the processing market that China now controls. Creating a domestic REE supply chain must be a top priority, he said.

But despite the minerals’ essential role in EVs and clean energy, mining and processing the materials can be environmentally damaging. It generates toxic air, water, and waste pollution that has left China wrestling with a “toxic aftermath,” a Yale Environment 360 article states.

Concerns about environmental impacts as the U.S. and allies move to recreate domestic REE supply chains prompted the Energy Department in January to announce $28.35 million in federal funding for projects to advance U.S. REE processing.

According to Jordy Lee, program manager with a Colorado School of Mines program, it is probably less difficult to create a sustainable U.S. REE sector than many believe, though “it depends on what you mean by sustainable.” Generally, “we don’t really know about the full rare earth environmental impacts,” Lee says.

When the United States was the REE world leader, environmental oversight was limited, so a lot of impact information is missing, Lee says. Today, the country lacks the expertise and infrastructure, and China is not very open about sharing environmental data from its decades of controlling production, he adds.

According to the State Department, REE demand could rise as much as 1,000 percent by 2050 as the world tackles climate change. Will urgency over the environment merge with urgency about rebuilding REE supply chains and pave a bipartisan pathway?

“We don’t really have a choice,” says Britton. The United States is poised to get REEs and clean energy right or forever cede control.

David P. Clarke is a writer and editor who has served as a journalist, in industry, and in government. Email him at

Tech Need for Rare Earth Elements May Fuel Rare Bipartisan Response.

Pilgrims to Where Sun Was Born: Culture, Species, and Sustainability
Bruce Rich - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
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Bruce Rich

The Huichol people number some 45,000 in rural western and central Mexico. They have adapted to modern society but conserve elements of the naturalistic pantheism shared by nearly all hunter-gatherer groups thousands of years ago. Huichol culture still involves periodic ritualistic pilgrimages over hundreds of miles to visit religious natural sites, itineraries along indigenous trade routes forged prior to the European arrival.

Various features in this sacred landscape — caves, springs, mountains, lakes, and the ocean itself, as well as animals and plants — are encountered as incarnations of ancestors who through sacrifice helped to create and sustain the world. The pilgrimages educate younger Huichol chosen as future leaders who will join the elders. Initiates achieve with the help of peyote the visionary power of nierika, the transcendental perception of the structure of the world, which is inspirational to Huichol art.

The Huichol language remains unwritten, so traditions are passed on in this manner. Various scholars characterize the sacred pilgrimages as ambulatory “weavings of ritual texts,” “readings of a codex extended on the landscape,” and the Huichol “nomad itinerant university.”

The most important pilgrimage extends 400 miles eastwards from the Pacific Ocean to the top of the Cerro Quemado (“Burnt Hill”) in the sacred area called Wirikuta, a few miles from the old mining town of Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosi state. Here the Huichol ancestors sacrificed themselves to give birth to the sun, killing the morning stars; they were transformed into those fading stars that the initiates see from the top of the mountain at dawn, disappearing as the sun rises. In Wirikuta the ancestors conducted the first deer hunt, and in the deer’s footprints the first peyote plants grew.

Threats to Wirikuta started with road building in the 1970s that catalyzed logging and agricultural expansion. By the 1990s the Huichol teamed up with a local NGO, Conservacion Humana, together with World Wildlife Fund Mexico and another Mexican environmental NGO, Pronatura, to fight for modifications in highway construction. The coalition succeeded in getting San Luis Potosi to establish Wirikuta as a protected cultural and ecological area in 1994, and its size was doubled in 2000. Wirikuta has been on UNESCO’s Tentative List for confirmation as a World Heritage natural and cultural site since 2004, and WWF has designated the area as one of Earth’s three most biodiverse desert ecosystems.

In 2009 a Canadian company, First Majestic Silver, purchased from the Mexican government for $3 million mining concessions covering over 70 percent of the Wirikuta protected area. The concessions are arguably legal, since mining will take place in special use sub-zones specifically carved out of the core protection area.

The coalition, the Front in Defense of Wirikuta, convinced a Mexican federal court in 2012 to issue an injunction against the mining, citing both Mexican and international law, including International Labor Organization Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, and the 2008 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But attempts to get the Mexican National Commission of Natural Protected Areas to designate Wirikuta as a federal reserve backfired, energizing non-indigenous farmers and community groups in Real de Catorce to file a successful lawsuit against the proposal.

University of Guanajuato research found that many in non-Huichol communities welcome a mining rejuvenation. The creation of Real de Catorce and other Spanish settlements in the area dates back to the opening of mines in the 18th century; the region has had a silver culture for over 250 years.

First Majestic has adopted the discourse of “sustainable mining,” promising $6 million for a local museum dedicated to the industry as well as for the establishment of crafts workshops in silversmithing and music, with stipends for local students. It promises to finance two water treatment plants for Real de Catorce and another community — 20 percent of the water will go for the mining, the rest for local use — and has pledged not to use open pit mining or cyanide.

Sustainability rhetoric notwithstanding, the on-the-ground reality worldwide of many extractive industry investments is one of growing social and environmental abuses — a problematic record in which Canadian mining companies have often been disproportionately involved.

The fate of Wirikuta will reflect whether the overlapping priorities of indigenous rights, biodiversity protection, and economic development can be reconciled — as species accelerate toward extinction, indigenous cultures around the world die, and, for the Huichol, the places where the sun and the world were born are threatened.

Pilgrims to where sun was born: Culture, species, and sustainability.

The Debate: Years After Treaty Goes Into Force, Mining on the Seafloor Ratchets Up
Kristina Marie Gjerde - IUCN
Renée Grogan - World Ocean Council
Hannah Lily - Commonwealth Secretariat
Kathryn Mengerink - Waitt Institute
Sandor Mulsow - International Seabed Authority
Verena Tunnicliffe - University of Victoria
World Ocean Council
Commonwealth Secretariat
Waitt Institute
International Seabed Authority
University of Victoria
Current Issue
The Debate: Years After Treaty Goes Into Force, Mining on the Seafloor Ratchets

HEADNOTE ❧ The issue of deep seabed mining, how to manage it, and who benefits from it was a topic of intense debate during the lengthy period of negotiations to develop the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in the 1970s and 1980s. Now that mining is set to get underway, It is still a topic of heated concern, which is why here we present a cluster of articles on seafloor mining in advance of the July meeting of the instrumentality created by UNCLOS to regulate sea-floor mining, the International Seabed Authority.