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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tech Need for Rare Earth Elements May Fuel Rare Bipartisan Response.