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In pandemic, GOP sees opportunity for critical minerals bill

As China dominates market for minerals critical to computers and energy, Republicans want to encourage more U.S. mining

"China holds an overwhelming advantage in access to critical minerals and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it dangerously clear that we can’t take our supply for granted," said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., a cosponsor of a bill to ease mining rules.
"China holds an overwhelming advantage in access to critical minerals and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it dangerously clear that we can’t take our supply for granted," said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., a cosponsor of a bill to ease mining rules. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans have for years sought unsuccessfully to push for domestic mining of critical minerals.

Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic hampers global commerce and lays bare the fault lines in the U.S. dependence on China for dozens of those minerals, GOP lawmakers see an opportunity to renew their effort.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski and other Republicans wrote to the Interior and the Agriculture secretaries this week urging them to finalize regulations making it easier for companies to mine for the critical minerals that can be found on federal lands.

“Such changes would help to strengthen domestic supply chains for every facet of the manufacturing economy, which would support the President’s trade policy objectives,” the lawmakers wrote. “And modernizing these regulations will serve as a catalyst for investment, which is vital as the U.S. works to overcome the economic impacts of COVID-19.”

The letter followed the introduction by a group of GOP lawmakers last week of a draft bill that would encourage domestic mining of minerals the administration has designated as vital for the country’s national and economic security and industrial production.

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“China holds an overwhelming advantage in access to critical minerals and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it dangerously clear that we can’t take our supply for granted,” said Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., a cosponsor of the legislation.

Following an executive order by President Donald Trump, the Interior Department in 2018 released a list of 35 minerals the administration considers critical. The minerals have a wide array of applications, including in military products, medical equipment, computers, cellphones, oil drilling operations, batteries and solar power equipment.

Chinese domination

While the U.S. leads in the production of beryllium and helium, China dominates the global critical minerals market. The U.S. is fully dependent on imports for 14 of the 35 critical and rare earth minerals, including graphite, manganese and niobium, according to the Congressional Research Service. The country imports 75 percent of its supplies of at least 10 of the listed critical minerals, including tin, antimony, titanium and uranium.

The coronavirus pandemic has grounded the global economy for much of the first half of this year and led to a reckoning over the way commerce is conducted, especially with China, from which the novel coronavirus originated.

“The global pandemic has highlighted significant supply chain vulnerabilities, particularly our reliance on China and other nations to meet our demand for critical minerals,” House Natural Resources ranking member Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said in a statement last week when the GOP draft bill was unveiled.

Republican lawmakers have decried what they say are arduous environmental regulations and protracted permitting processes that they say hamper extraction on public lands.

They have introduced bills in the past to ease those regulations. A GOP measure in 2015, when the party controlled both the House and the Senate and Bishop was Natural Resources chairman, passed the House on a largely partisan vote and was included in Murkowski’s massive energy bill that ultimately collapsed.

Bishop said the latest bill is an urgently needed step toward overhauling a policy that has hampered domestic mineral extraction.

“Shortsighted Federal policy has left us reliant on our adversaries and with an abundance of domestic minerals untapped, leaving our renewable energy technologies, healthcare, and modern way of life with dangerous uncertainties,” he said. “From overhauling our permitting process to prioritizing advancements in mineral refining, this legislation provides solutions for rebuilding every aspect of the domestic critical mineral supply chain.”

Murkowski has a similar bill in the Senate, and included critical minerals provisions in her energy bill that recently stalled.

Conservation protections

But roadblocks to the expansion of mining in the U.S. remain, and Democrats and conservation groups such as the Sierra Club warn some policy changes could come at the expense of conservation by opening more public lands for exploration.

Such plans also would come as the Trump administration has moved to weaken safeguards under the National Environmental Policy Act, the bedrock law that allows the federal government and states to reject proposed projects if they would not meet standards to minimize environmental damage.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.,  acknowledged that U.S. mining law is outdated, but expressed concern about GOP motives.

“If Republicans think that law is too strict and not industry-friendly enough, that’s their business, but the American people don’t support the kind of environmental deregulation they’re proposing and neither do I,” Grijlava told CQ Roll Call. 

Grijalva instead pointed to a bill the Democrats moved in committee in October that he said contained “modern, forward-thinking” revisions to a federal mining law that has been largely untouched since the 1870s. That 19th century law, he said, has allowed companies to take “billions of dollars in taxpayer resources for nothing.”

The bill includes updates to the royalty rates that private companies pay for extracting on public lands, tribal consultation in mining plans, and provisions to make companies pay to clean up after themselves rather than saddling taxpayers with the bill.  

“I don’t see any of that in today’s Republican plan,” Grijalva said. “I just see small variations on the same tired pro-polluter agenda we’ve seen for years.”

The Arizona Democrat also has introduced legislation that would direct the Interior Department to remove uranium from its critical minerals list. Uranium mining remains controversial in parts of the southwest where communities are still contending with the post-Cold War legacy of the radioactive mineral.

Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a conservative group that encourages Republicans to back clean energy initiatives, supports the GOP bill because it aims to help ensure a reliable supply of components for battery storage and solar equipment.

“If you want to create the expansion of clean energy, it means you want to have a steady and reliable and affordable source of minerals,” said Heather Reams, executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions. Reams said she is encouraging lawmakers to maintain environmental and conservation standards as they seek more domestic mining. 

Bishop’s measure is also backed by industry groups, including the National Mining Association, American Exploration and Mining Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

National Mining Association President and CEO Rich Nolan said that encouraging “greater use” of domestic resources will provide the foundation for economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic and open up more jobs in the hardrock mining industry.

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