Ernst proposes to boost stockpiles, production of ‘critical minerals’

By: - June 14, 2022 8:08 pm

Sen. Joni Ernst says China's dominance of certain mineral production is a threat to national security. (Photo courtesy of Ernst's office)

China’s stranglehold on the production of certain minerals that are used to make high-capacity batteries, fighter jet airframes and a host of other advanced technologies is a threat to the United States’ national security, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said Tuesday.

Her solution is new legislation — introduced with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and co-sponsored by five other senators — that would expand the so-called “critical minerals” stockpiled by the federal government. The bill aims to wean the country from dependence on Chinese supplies by working with allies to develop new supply chains.

“For decades, China has been working to build a global monopoly on the critical minerals that our nation needs to defend itself and create the future,” Ernst, R-Iowa, told reporters.

The text of the Homeland Acceleration of Recovering Deposits and Renewing Onshore Critical Keystones Act — or HARD ROCK Act — was not immediately available.

The most-recent list of critical minerals compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey this year includes 50 minerals that are mostly metals. The ones that have received the most attention in recent years are cobalt, lithium and 17 rare earth elements — many of which are actually abundant despite the “rare” label but are not commonly found in large concentrations, making their procurement more damaging to the landscape. They are used to make exceptionally strong magnets that can endure extreme temperatures.

The United States was formerly the largest global producer of rare earth elements, all of which are mined in California, according to a 2020 Congressional Research Service report. That began to change in the mid-1980s, when China ramped up production.

As early as 2010, China was mining 85% of the world’s rare earth elements annually and processed about 95% of them, which allowed the country to cut its exports and dramatically increase prices for a period of years, the report said.

Since then, potential sites to mine rare earth minerals have been identified in a number of states, including Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, New York and Wyoming.

While Ernst emphasized the potential implications of critical mineral supply disruptions for the nation’s military, cobalt and lithium are also key ingredients for all-electric vehicle batteries. The global demand for those batteries was projected to increase threefold from 2020 to 2025, according to a White House report. China is not the largest producer of those raw materials from mining, but it is the world’s largest processor of them.

Australia was by far the leader in lithium production in 2020, and it shipped almost all of it to China for refining.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has more than half of global reserves of cobalt and accounts for 70% of what is mined each year. The country previously was the leader in refining cobalt, but now about 84% of the mineral is exported to China for processing.

“China has positioned itself as a market leader in the manufacturing supply chain through the practice of questionable environmental policies, price distortion, state-run entities that minimize competition and large subsidies throughout the battery supply chain,” the White House report concluded.

In February, President Joe Biden announced that the company that mines rare earth elements in California would get $35 million in federal funding to help it refine the mineral, “establishing a full end-to-end domestic permanent magnet supply chain.” He said further funding would be available to boost domestic lithium production and to reclaim critical minerals from used batteries.

Manchin said the new proposed legislation is key to securing critical mineral supplies.

“By addressing the weaknesses in our current National Defense Stockpile, our bill will bolster American critical mineral independence and help ensure we have the resources we need for essential defense products and services,” he said.

The bill’s co-sponsors are Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont.; Gary Peters, D-Mich.; Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; Angus King, I-Maine, and Rick Scott, R-Fla.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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