E&E News: Murkowski hopes it's 'finally the year' for minerals bill

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski refuses to give up on passing legislation to encourage the domestic extraction of minerals for electric vehicles and other technologies.

The Alaska Republican held a seventh hearing on her "American Mineral Security Act," S. 1317, making the case once again that reliance on foreign minerals is the nation's "Achilles' heel" as the Trump administration levies more tariffs on China.

"I hope that this is finally the year that Congress will work together to advance bipartisan legislation that will help rebuild our mineral supply chain," Murkowski said.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States imports at least 50% of 48 elements and 100% of 18 of those. China is a top supplier of most "critical minerals" — elements both vital to emerging technologies and vulnerable to supply disruption.

The most talked-about elements of late are those in lithium-ion batteries, the power cells for EVs (Energywire, May 9).

"The modern, advanced lithium-ion battery is perhaps the most important technology of the 21st century," NAATBatt International Chairman John Warner said at the hearing, and China controls 60%-75% of the world's battery manufacturing.

Even electric automaker Tesla Inc.'s Nevada Gigafactory will have to rely on imports for its raw materials, like lithium and cobalt.

Jonathan Evans, president of Lithium Americas Corp., which is developing the Thacker Pass mine in Nevada, recommended Congress consider a federal loan guarantee program to help critical minerals projects compete with government-run companies abroad.

"It's not something that we have done in this country in a long time, but we need a strategy around that because we're a decade or two behind," he said.

Mining companies' top priority, though, is streamlining mine permitting. Murkowski's bill includes "modest steps" — compared with H.R. 2531 from Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) — to speed up a "notoriously slow" permitting process (E&E Daily, May 8).

Industry studies put the average mine permitting time at seven to 10 years, but environmentalists are quick to cite the two-year average in a 2016 Government Accountability Office report.

Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel for mining watchdog Earthworks, said Murkowski's bill just makes the top polluting industry "even dirtier."

"Taxpayers — not the polluters — too often pay for cleanup," he said, urging passage of mining reform bills from Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) (E&E Daily, May 10).

But the Trump administration is closely aligned with Murkowski and industry.

Under an executive order, USGS created a list of 35 critical minerals. The Department of Commerce was supposed to draft policy recommendations to mine more domestically, but that report is now six months past due.

Murkowski said she would "rattle some cages" at Commerce after neither David Solan, deputy assistant Energy secretary for renewable power, nor Joe Balash, assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management, could provide a status update on the report.

Tariffs, rare earths

Committee ranking member Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) focused his attention on rare earths, a group of elements found in everyday technology.

His "Rare Earth Element Advanced Coal Technologies Act," S. 1052, would increase funding for research into extracting the elements from acid mine drainage generated by abandoned coal mines.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, W.Va., started working on the idea in 2010. Since last year, NETL and West Virginia University have been collaborating on a pilot-scale rare earth extraction facility.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of West Virginia University's Water Research Institute, has led the team finding high concentrations of valuable minerals in acid mine drainage, which is West Virginia's top pollutant and a drag on coal company profits.

Drainage acts as "free acid," causing metals to leach out of the water, Ziemkiewicz said, essentially skipping several steps in typical mineral processing.

Currently, rare earths come exclusively from China, which Manchin argues should raise national security concerns.

"I don't think we'll ever be price competitive with China knowing they've got this much of a jump," Manchin said, but price supports and strategic mineral stockpiles could be good ways to develop a U.S. rare earth industry.

By:  Dylan Brown
Source: E&E News