• March 30, 2022

    On Critical Minerals, Actions Speak Louder than Words

    Ruth Demeter

The Biden Administration Must Back Domestic Mining to Address Our Growing Need for Critical and Rare Earth Minerals

This week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to examine the domestic critical minerals supply chain. The discussion will be timely. The war in Ukraine and sanctions imposed against Russia have once again underscored the precarious nature of America’s growing dependence on critical minerals—and lack of homegrown supply.

The pressing need for more critical minerals and the precarious nature of supply isn’t up for debate. A growing consensus of experts warn that the world will need to increase production of minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt nearly 600 percent by 2050 to keep up with the demand for clean energy products, including electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines. Right now, the U.S. relies on China, Russia and other countries for most of our critical minerals needs. Russia is one of the world’s top producers of nickel, critical to the production of stainless steel and batteries, so the current conflict has led to a surge in its global price. Russia is also home to a self-proclaimed “titanium valley,” which supplied titanium to, among others, U.S. and European aerospace companies. Ukraine has its own thriving minerals industry as well, for which the future is now uncertain. With the vulnerabilities of the market laid bare, a comprehensive strategy that embraces both new domestic mining and new technology for sourcing critical minerals is vital to any blueprint for strengthening our domestic critical mineral supply chain.

President Biden acknowledged the importance of critical minerals with a 2021 Executive Order. In February of this year, the White House released a report to detail the progress it has made. While there have been important investments, the Administration must move more aggressively on existing opportunities to source critical and rare earth minerals here at home.

These important investments should accelerate with enactment of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Chamber’s number one legislative priority last year. It is vital that the Administration now take action to approve and advance existing opportunities to mine for critical and rare earth minerals within our borders.   

Thus far, that has not been the case. For example, in February the Administration cancelled two leases for the proposed Twin Metals mines in Minnesota, halting a project that would have provided a domestic source of copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum. This move came just a few months after the United States Geological Survey had added nickel to its updated critical minerals list due to the current lack of domestic production. The Administration’s rejection of this $1.6 billion project meant not only forsaking good, high-paying jobs, but also the loss of a potential source of the critical minerals the country so desperately needs.  

The Biden Administration has also imposed roadblocks on the approval of the Ambler Access Project in Alaska. In regulatory limbo for more than ten years, the Ambler Access Project proposes a 211-mile industrial access road required to access and develop the Ambler Mining District, a rich copper-zinc mineral belt with deposits of cobalt, germanium, gallium, arsenic, palladium, lead, gold, silver, and platinum. Developing the mines within the district would provide 4,800 jobs and would be a vital asset to bolster the nation’s stockpile of critical minerals. On the day President Biden released the report on the critical minerals supply chain, the Department of Interior quietly reopened the permitting process for the road, fueling concern that the project would never break ground. As Senator Lisa Murkowski noted in a statement, “[t]his decision will harm Alaska, including the Alaska Natives who support and will benefit from this project. Nor could it come at a worse time: how can the Biden administration possibly watch Russia leverage Europe on natural gas, and then decide to put the United States in the exact same position on minerals?”

The White House is right to prioritize supply chain issues, but their clean energy goals further highlight the importance of a comprehensive strategy for a secure and reliable supply of critical minerals. Without increased development, production and processing of critical minerals domestically, the Administration is impeding its own clean energy promises. Electric vehicles, solar panels, battery storage and more—all which will require a steady and secure supply of critical minerals.

As the Senate Energy Committee turns its attention to this issue and the war in Ukraine unfortunately continues, pressure to move forward on domestic mining continues to grow. The Administration has said the right things when it comes to establishing critical mineral production in the United States. However, actions speak louder than words, and right now the Administration’s actions do not match its commitments. We hope that as it continues to look for ways to safeguard and build our nation’s supply of critical minerals, it develops more concrete plans to mine these necessary critical minerals here in the United States.