Bureau of National Affairs (BNA): Murkowski Offers Bill to Promote Mining Of Rare Elements Valued for ‘Green' Products

Legislation introduced June 22 would require the Obama administration to consider federal loan guarantees and stockpiling to promote domestic production of rare earth elements, which are increasingly used for environmentally friendly technologies.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) proposed the Rare Earth Supply Technology and Resources Transformation Act (no bill number assigned yet) to provide the economic assistance that may be needed to restart U.S. production of rare earth elements. The elements are used in products such as compact fluorescent lights, wind turbine magnets, and batteries for hybrid electric vehicles.

Murkowski issued a statement saying, “Rather than further restrict mining in this country, the industry could be creating American jobs and producing minerals that are essential to clean energy technologies. Unless action is taken, we will trade our current dependence on foreign oil for an equally unsettling dependence on foreign minerals.”

About 95 percent of the world supply of rare earth elements is produced by China, which has been tightening its export controls on the minerals not only to meet domestic demand but, according to critics, to pressure manufacturing companies into locating their facilities in China (50 DER A-25, 3/17/10).

Rare earth elements are not rare in overall quantity, but they do not often occur in sufficient concentrations to be economical for mining. As commonly defined, they are 17 elements: the series of 15 lanthanide elements starting in the periodic table with lanthanum, plus the elements yttrium and scandium. They are used in the defense sector and various industrial processes as well as in products favored for environmental reasons.

Stockpiles, Loans, Expedited Action.

Murkowski's bill would require that the secretaries of Interior and Energy, within 180 days of the law's enactment, send Congress a report assessing whether rare earth materials critical to clean energy technologies and national and economic security should be procured and placed in stockpile.

Her bill would require the Defense secretary, in the same time frame, to submit to Congress a report describing projects under the Defense Production Act of 1950 (Pub. L. No. 81-774) to support the domestic rare earth supply chain. If no such project exists or is planned, the report must include a justification. The Defense Department formerly included rare earths in the National Defense Stockpile, but they were depleted by 1998, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Murkowski bill would give the secretary of energy 90 days after enactment to issue a report to industry describing available mechanisms for obtaining government loan guarantees to reestablish a domestic rare earth supply chain. At the same time, the secretary would have to issue guidance to industry on obtaining loan guarantees under Title 17 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The Murkowski bill would establish a multi-agency federal task force to promote expedited review and approval of permits or other actions as necessary to accelerate the completion of development projects for domestic production of rare earths.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) introduced a similar bill (H.R. 4866) March 17 in the House

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Source: Originally published June 23, 2010