Murkowski floats plan to ramp up domestic rare-earth production

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) yesterday floated legislation to boost domestic production of minerals critical to the clean energy sector.

The bill would authorize a series of new assessments and programs to help the United States strengthen domestic mining and processing of rare-earth elements.

Rare earths -- a group of 17 elements used in wind turbines, energy-efficient light bulbs, catalytic converters for diesel engines and hybrid car components -- are primarily sourced from China despite vast domestic reserves. China has locked up a near monopoly on processing, and many in the sector predict a supply crunch within the next few years as global demand for the resources increase.

"America's growing reliance on foreign minerals endangers our efforts to advance cleaner energy," Murkowski said in a statement. "We have slowly but surely surrendered the front end of the clean energy supply chain."

China accounts for more than 90 percent of the world's production of rare-earth minerals and the materials derived from them. And the nation has vowed to clamp down on its exports.


Doing so "has held clean-energy manufacturing hostage," Murkowski said. "As a direct result, we risk a future in which wind turbines, solar panels, advanced batteries and geothermal steam turbines are not made in the USA, but somewhere else."

Murkowski's measure is a companion to legislation (H.R. 4866) Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) introduced in the House in March. That bill has gained bipartisan support.

Specifically, Murkowski's bill would authorize a multi-agency task force to monitor and assist federal agencies in reviewing and approving permits for rare-earth mines. It also would authorize the Energy Department to issue loan guarantees for rare-earth projects, and it calls on several agencies to ramp up research and development into rare earths.

At a House hearing this spring, Molycorp Minerals CEO Mark Smith lamented his company's inability to secure a DOE loan guarantee for its mine expansion (E&E Daily, March 17). Molycorp is the only domestic rare-earth producer.

The mining industry has praised the move, calling the legislation "a needed blueprint for meeting this nation's technology and security needs."

"By promoting domestic production of rare earths and other minerals, U.S. policy makers can ensure greater control of our economic destiny, create good-paying American jobs and retain innovative know-how and skills in this country, rather than allowing these benefits to move offshore," said National Mining Association CEO Hal Quinn in a statement.

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