Op-Ed: Cut Exports of Rare Earth Minerals
Clean energy technologies face a range of obstacles. The credit crunch has slowed capital investment, disputes have arisen over which lands are suitable for infrastructure, and the electric grid has sometimes proved incapable of handling new generation. Over the long run, however, our most difficult challenge may be our most fundamental: ensuring a stable supply of the raw materials needed to manufacture clean energy technologies in the first place.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, our nation’s reliance on foreign minerals has “grown significantly” over the past several decades. Last year, we imported more than 50 percent of our supply of 43 different minerals and materials.
This growing dependence is important because minerals offer our best chance to harness the potential of clean energy. Even now, we import 100 percent of the quartz crystal used in photovoltaic panels, the indium used in LED lighting, and the rare earth metals used in batteries and permanent magnets. The large quantities of minerals required for clean energy technologies only add to the scale of our needs. A large wind turbine can contain more than 1 ton of rare earth elements — in addition to more than 300 tons of steel, nearly 5 tons of copper and 3 tons of aluminum.
Taken together, these statistics signal a little-known, yet rather worrisome, trend. And even though clean energy technologies account for a fraction of worldwide mineral consumption, we’re already seeing strains in global supplies.
Countries such as China have undertaken a 50-year, or longer, view of the world and continue to lock down long-term supply arrangements through investments in Africa, Australia and South America. That will help China meet its burgeoning demand for these raw materials, but it could leave our nation out in the cold at the very time we need minerals most.
Rare earth metals again provide a good example of what’s at stake. China currently accounts for 97 percent of global production of these incredibly important metals and last month set off a wave of anxiety among clean energy developers by announcing its intention to decrease export quotas for the eighth time in as many years.
By cutting rare earth exports, China is seeking to ensure the manufacture of clean technologies within its own borders. But the implications for energy security and job creation in America are also apparent: We risk a future in which wind turbines, solar panels, advanced batteries and geothermal steam turbines are not made in the USA, but somewhere else.
Some experts contend that the lack of a cap-and-trade system is at the root of this emerging crisis. I disagree, and I believe the primary reason why our nation has fallen behind is that we have slowly but surely surrendered the front end of the clean energy supply chain.
We’re left with quite a paradox. Even as many political leaders take steps to limit mining, a reliable supply of minerals has become essential to the manufacture of clean energy technologies. If allowed to continue, we will simply trade our current dependence on foreign oil for an equally devastating dependence on foreign minerals.
Even our environmental goals could be jeopardized. The widespread deployment of clean energy technologies is not only contingent upon breakthroughs in research and development but also the affordability of the raw materials used in them. If prices spike because the supply of raw materials is insufficient, entire technologies could fail.
The good news is that the United States has, within its borders, abundant reserves of many critical minerals. These reserves represent an opportunity to create many new American jobs, and their production would undoubtedly facilitate a robust clean technology manufacturing sector. Particularly in these tough economic times, we should recognize that mining jobs pay well, require a high level of skill, and provide an excellent career path for those who pursue them.
I understand that many people do not want land used for mineral extraction and a wide variety of other purposes. The truth, however, is that those views are both short-sighted and counterproductive. Our standard of living requires us to generate a significant amount of energy, and that energy must be produced somewhere. All resources carry some cost to the environment, whether in carbon content or the raw materials and physical area needed to tap their potential.
Albert Einstein once wrote that “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Our nation faces a great challenge in the form of climate change and as we seek to advance the technologies needed to address it. But as we struggle to find our way forward, we’ll also be presented with new opportunities to strengthen our economy and our security. This is an issue on which we, too, must take the long view.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.