Washington, D.C. (December 11, 2019) - For some time, the Administration and Congress have expressed concern about U.S. overreliance on foreign sourcing for critical, or strategic, minerals that are essential to U.S. defense and technology production. On December 10, 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, & Technology Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing on “Research and Innovation to Address the Critical Minerals Challenge,” which focused on ways to encourage additional U.S. production and processing of these mineral commodities. The Administration’s emphasis on ensuring a reliable supply of these minerals and reducing reliance on foreign sources dates to an Executive Order issued in December 2017, and in recent months the White House and Congress have stepped up efforts to promote U.S. production as a national security and economic priority. Critical minerals include familiar names like aluminum, chromium, and cobalt, but also many other more exotic metals such as niobium, scandium, and gallium.

This dependence on foreign imports poses source reliability concerns, due to risks from natural disasters, political instability, and the ability of potentially adverse foreign powers to disrupt supply chains and manipulate markets. The issue has many moving parts and multiple opportunities exist to engage with the Administration and Congress. Interested stakeholders should monitor these developments closely, seek out ways to engage with the Administration and elected officials, and be prepared to take advantage of project development opportunities that may present themselves as a result of the increased focus on these mineral commodities.

Critical minerals are used in the production of computers, cell phones, steel, electric car batteries, medical devices, and solar cells, among other products. A recent USGS report found that the U.S. relies 100% on imports of 14 critical minerals to fulfill its annual consumption requirements, and more than 50% on imports of 15 other critical minerals. Imports from China comprise the largest amount of critical mineral imports into the U.S.

In Executive Order 13817, “A Federal Strategy To Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” issued on December 20, 2017, the White House stated the Administration’s policy of identifying new sources of critical minerals and streamlining the leasing and permitting process to encourage domestic exploration and production of critical minerals. It also directed the Department of the Interior to publish a list of critical minerals, and the Department of Commerce to issue a report on improvements to critical mineral production and processing in the U.S.

On May 18, 2018, the Department of the Interior published its final list of 35 critical minerals deemed vital to national security and the U.S. economy but for which the supply is strategically vulnerable due to our reliance on foreign imports. On June 4, 2019, the Department of Commerce released “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals.” The report contains six calls to action, 24 goals, and 61 recommendations to mitigate risks associated with U.S. dependence on foreign imports and to increase domestic exploration, production, processing, and manufacturing of critical minerals. Specifically, the report recommends leveraging stakeholder experience to identify the needs and challenges of implementing innovations in the critical mineral supply chain, encouraging private sector investment in the domestic mineral industry, bolstering research and development, improving the state and federal permitting process, and identifying new sources of critical minerals.

In Congress, on May 2, 2019, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced S. 1317, the “American Mineral Security Act.” This legislation codifies the requirement that the Department of the Interior publish a list of critical minerals and requires the Secretary of the Interior to review the list every three years. The bill also requires agencies to adhere to permit review timelines, establish performance goals, engage in early collaboration with stakeholders, and ensure transparency in the federal permitting process; it establishes a research program to promote efficient production of and develop alternatives to critical minerals and their use in the U.S. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives. At the December 10, 2019 House Science Committee Subcommittee on Energy hearing, members expressed an interest in facilitating federal research to address critical mineral use and supply chain issues.

These actions reflect strong support on the part of the Administration and Congress in facilitating domestic exploration and production of critical minerals, as well as a commitment to increased research and regulatory streamlining. This heightened awareness of supply chain vulnerabilities posed by U.S. reliance on foreign imports will likely result in opportunities for U.S. companies in the areas of increased exploration, production, processing, and manufacturing of these essential mineral commodities. Interested parties should respond proactively to these initiatives by investigating program incentives and developing strategies to provide effective solutions.

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