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Virus Seen as ‘Wake-Up Call’ for U.S. Use of Overseas Minerals

June 24, 2020, 4:56 PM

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the U.S. has an Achilles heel in its heavy dependence on overseas mineral production critical to national security and clean energy, witnesses told a Senate panel Wednesday.

“The United States is getting lapped,” Joe Bryan, a former Obama administration deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

China dominates the critical minerals market, and the major disruption of the supply chain because of the coronavirus pandemic underscores the need for America to wean itself off such imports, lawmakers have said.

However, “while China is the dominant player, we are also quickly losing ground to our European allies as well,” leaving the U.S. without a ready domestic source of those minerals, said Bryan, now a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the energy panel’s chairman, said the Covid-19 pandemic, which strained supplies for a range of products and technologies including personal protective equipment for health care workers, “should be a wake-up call for all of us.”

Legislation in Limbo

The energy panel’s look at weaknesses in the U.S. mineral supply chain—including cobalt, magnesium, and tantalum—comes as Senate minerals legislation is in limbo. The materials are used in consumer products and wind turbines but also are crucial to U.S. armed services, Bryan said.

The services are transitioning not only from acid to lithium-ion batteries for tactical ground vehicles but also energy storage crucial to next-generation laser and rail gun weapons using electricity as a propellant.

Murkowski was able to attach her American Mineral Security Act (S. 1317) to a broader Senate energy package S. 2657, only to see it stall in March over efforts to phase down heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in air conditioning and refrigeration.

The U.S. approach needs to go beyond the royalties it imposes on mineral production on federal lands, Murkowski said, and focus on rebuilding supply chains and recognize there is no substitute for “having raw materials available here at home.”

Mining Laws

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and the top energy panel Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), noted that the U.S. hasn’t overhauled its mining laws significantly since the late 1800s.

King said the U.S. should “think about paying additional costs for these minerals if they are domestically produced” as a sort of insurance policy against a “catastrophic breakdown” in the critical minerals supply chain.

Thomas J. Duesterberg, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute think tank, said the Covid-19 pandemic triggered “not only the interruption of supply chains during the pandemic but also the increasing control of our major economic and political competitor, China, over both upstream raw resource supplies and downstream processing and manufacturing of finished products.”

The U.S. depends on China for a significant portion of key minerals, getting 39% of its tantalum, 31% of tungsten, and 36% of its indium from China, he said. China currently accounts for about 85% of global production of rare earth metals and about 80% of U.S. imports of those metals, Duesterberg said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com

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