Murkowski Speaks on Importance of Spurring Critical Minerals Domestic Production

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today delivered the following remarks at the National Center for Policy Analysis’ “Rare Earths, Critical Metals, and National Security” conference in Washington, D.C.:

“Good afternoon, and thanks for the invitation to join you here. 

“I also want to thank NCPA – and everyone attending this conference – for taking time to focus on our nation’s mining industry.  Not enough attention is paid to the positive impact it has on our daily lives and our economy.  Too often, we forget that a stable and affordable supply of minerals is critical to our nation’s ability to compete in a rapidly changing world.

I regularly remind my Senate colleagues that minerals are the building blocks of our economy.  From rare earth elements to molybdenum, we rely on minerals for everything from the smallest computer chips to the tallest skyscrapers.  Minerals make it possible for us to innovate and invent – and in the process they shape both our standard of living and our ability to prosper.

“As I thought about what I’d say here today, the first question that came to mind was: where to begin?  This really is a critical time for the mining industry.  It’s also a very busy time for the industry, as it simultaneously tries to advance new projects and keep pace with the federal agencies cranking out regulation after regulation.      

“So let me start by highlighting some of the challenges that the mining industry faces, and then a few of the successes we’ve seen.  And I’ll wrap up by telling you about the legislation I’ve been working on to bring our nation’s mineral policies forward into the 21st century.

“First, the challenges.  As you all know, and discussed at length this morning, we’re 100 percent dependent on foreign countries for rare earth elements.  Not just partially dependent, like with petroleum – but wholly and completely dependent on others.  Making matters worse, the main producer of rare earths, China, is actively manipulating both the availability and the prices of their supply.  That’s a big problem.  That arrangement is distinctly to China’s advantage, not ours, and it has significant consequences for our competitiveness and security. 

“Rare earths have received most of the headlines and much of Congress’ attention.  But when you really start to look at our dependence on foreign nations for all critical minerals, you realize that rare earths are just the tip of the iceberg.      

“Again, there is no question that a stable and affordable supply of minerals is critical to America’s competitiveness.  And yet – despite that – our mineral-related capabilities have been slipping for decades.  We are now 100 percent dependent on foreign suppliers for 18 minerals, including rare earths, and more than 50 percent dependent on foreign sources for some 25 more.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, our nation is also headed in the wrong direction – we’re becoming more dependent on foreign suppliers for more and more mineral commodities.

“This isn’t happening because we lack mineral resources – it’s happening despite our tremendous mineral resource base.  Above all else, it’s the federal regulatory system that has slowed down exploration, permits, and ultimately the number of mines that can successfully operate in the United States.  

“This is a problem that has grown over the course of decades before reaching a fever pitch over the past couple years.  We now have what the coal mining crowd refers to as the EPA’s “train wreck” of new regulations.  At breakneck speed, EPA and other agencies are churning out major rules for greenhouse gas emissions, Clean Water Act guidance, and “Maximum Available Control Technologies” at power plants – to name just a few.  The EPA has retroactively vetoed valid mine permits in West Virginia, which not only deprived that state of much-needed jobs, but also established a dangerous precedent for new mines all over the country. 

“For its part, the Office of Surface Mining has written a rule that would eliminate some 7,000 coal mining jobs in the United States, and then fired their own consulting firm for crunching numbers that showed just how bad that rule will be.  Most recently, of course, the administration announced that it will fold OSM into the Bureau of Land Management.  I do not believe the administration has authority to do that on its own – and I’m not convinced it’s the right move, either.  

“The crush of regulations is also hitting hardrock producers.  EPA has begun a rulemaking to impose bonding requirements on mining companies that are already required to post bonds by the BLM, the Forest Service, and the States.  It’s already apparent that the EPA program would result in drastically higher costs at the front-end of a project’s development.  Ultimately, that means fewer projects, fewer jobs, and fewer minerals – all of which are simply unacceptable. 

“It goes on, of course.  In Arizona, we’ve seen the withdrawal of 100 million acres of federal land – full of high-grade uranium – because the Interior Department and Park Service have set out to create highly restrictive buffer zones outside the boundaries of our parks. And, on the more creative side of the ledger, EPA has undertaken a ‘Watershed Assessment’ of Alaska’s Bristol Bay region.  This was in response to petitions to preemptively veto a mine – and perhaps any other development in the area – to match the agency’s retroactive veto in West Virginia.

“From those examples alone, it’s clear: from exploration activities and small mining operations, to larger projects and the permitting process that must be navigated to bring them online, the federal bureaucracy has made it more and more difficult to invest in mining projects in the United States.

“Now, to be sure, there are rays of hope.  In Alaska, we managed to prevent the EPA from knocking the Kensington gold mine off course, and it’s now begun operations.  We’ve seen renewed domestic interest in rare earth elements – and my home state alone has already identified some 70 sites with rare earth potential.  In California, we’ve seen good news from Molycorp, which plans to re-open its Mountain Pass Mine after having idled it for the past nine years.   

“The mining industry has also been a strong source of job creation.  I’m not sure how many of you saw the new interim report from the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.  On page 11, there’s a chart showing employment trends in the United States from December 2007 to today.  And do you know the only sector that’s actually recorded positive job growth?  It’s not manufacturing, it’s not construction, and it’s not retail services – it’s mining.  

“So there’s some reason for optimism.  The domestic mining industry has held its own in recent years against pretty significant odds.  But again, when you look at the trends in our foreign mineral dependence, and when you look at the crush of new regulations that threatens to set domestic mining back so significantly, it’s hard to argue that everything is going perfectly alright. 

“That’s why I’ve been working on minerals legislation in the Senate.  To revitalize the domestic, critical mineral supply chain, earlier this year I introduced the “Critical Minerals Policy Act” along with 19 bipartisan co-sponsors.  That includes nine of my Democratic and 10 of my Republican colleagues.  The bill provides clear programmatic direction to help keep the U.S. competitive and will ensure that the federal government’s mineral policies – some of which have not been updated since the 1980s – are brought into the 21st century.

“The legislation requires that USGS generate a list of minerals critical to the U.S. economy, outlines a comprehensive set of policies that will bolster the production of those critical minerals, expands manufacturing, and promotes recycling and alternatives – all while maintaining strong environmental standards.

“Given some of the rash reactions that we see any time anyone introduces a bill on mining, let alone permitting, I think it’s important to note that my legislation would not amend or weaken a single environmental statute.  Mining operations are subject to no less than 30 federal, state, and local regulatory programs. As a country, we should be proud of and maintain the commitment we have displayed – over generations – to being good stewards of our natural environment. 

“There is no question that mining has an environmental impact; it involves digging holes in the ground.  But we must also acknowledge the national interests served by reducing our reliance on foreign, critical mineral supplies, and understand that these projects are pursued in more modern and responsible ways here at home.

“So I would encourage all of you to keep focusing on the issues brought up at this conference – for both rare earths and other critical minerals that we currently import.  I would encourage you to take a look at my bill – again, it’s S.1113.  And if you like what you see, I would encourage you to join me in making the case for its passage.  Talk about it.  Talk to your Senators and your Representatives about it.  Talk to mining companies – and the companies that rely on minerals to make their own products – and encourage them to do the same.   

“The Critical Minerals Policy Act offers an opportunity not just to update our mineral policies, but also to ensure that the United States produces the raw materials that make so much of our modern world possible.  This is about strengthening our economy, creating jobs, attracting investment, and competing with other nations around the world.  This is an opportunity to help ensure that new products and technologies continue to bear the stamp “Made in the U.S.A.”

“At the end of the day, that’s what our focus on minerals is all about.  It’s why we need to look for solutions to the very real problems associated with our growing dependence on foreign minerals.  It’s why we need to make sure our regulations don’t restrict domestic producers or force them to operate elsewhere.  And it’s why we need to make sure our federal policies are updated to reflect the needs and challenges of today – not 30 years ago.

“Thanks again for holding this conference – and for inviting me to be a part of it.”