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Ensuring critical mineral supplies for defense and domestic applications: Congressional actions and GSA's position

Rare Earth Elements
Image courtesy Environmental and Energy Study Institute

In October 2013, The Geological Society of America released a position statement on critical minerals, emphasizing the need to better understand the extent of our domestic resources and how they may be exploited. A critical mineral is one that is both essential in use and subject to the risk of supply restriction; although the particular minerals in question can change depending on which industry they are used in, it is common for most rare earth elements to fall under this designation.

Heavy rare earth elements are heavily used in electronics and communications applications. In particular, the United States Department of Defense relies on such materials as ferroniobium for steel alloys, dysprosium metal for nuclear reactors and data storage, yttrium oxides for solid-state lasers, and cadmium-zinc-tellurium for radiation detectors and solar cells. Other rare earths are used in missile guidance and control systems, lasers for mine detection and countermeasures, satellite communications, radar and sonar, and optical equipment and speakers.

However, these rare earth elements are not commonly produced in the United States. China is the main exporter of rare earths, controlling some 95% of the market in 2011 and similar amounts today. In the past, China has imposed export restraints, such as duties, tariffs and quotas, which artificially increase prices outside of China and lower prices inside the country, creating pressure on U.S. and other non-Chinese "downstream" producers to move their operations to China for better access to materials.

China has set 2014 export quotas for rare earths at lower amounts from last year's exports, despite a ruling against such export quotas by the World Trade Organization earlier this year. Some of these actions affect countries like South Korea and Japan, who are involved in territorial disputes with China, but they could also impact U.S. national security if supply chains are compromised, since the U.S. lacks almost entirely the industrial capacity to process rare earths, except for a few corporations with very limited production.

Several recent legislative actions are aimed at mitigating the possible threat of rare earth supply disruptions. The National Defense Authorization Act authorizes the Pentagon to stockpile certain critical minerals, including dysprosium and yttrium, using the National Defense Stockpile Transaction Fund; it may spend up to $41 million to acquire specified materials for each fiscal year from 2014 to 2019. In addition, the Defense Logistics Agency will be allowed to encourage the domestic supply of strategic and critical minerals, including rare earth elements, needed for defense components. The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Theodore Deutch (D-FL) passed the House in June 2013 and the Senate in November, and has been sent back to the House with changes on 19 November.

According to the Congressional Research Report "Rare Earth Elements in National Defense" released in September 2013, policymakers have expressed growing concern that the U.S. has lost its domestic capacity to produce strategic and critical materials. The U.S. currently has only one public university, the Colorado School of Mines, with a rare earth specialty that provides broad experience in mineralogy, resource exploration, mining, extraction, and production. The Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2013 is aimed at improving this situation. Included in the act are directives to develop methods for determining which minerals are critical resources based on supply restrictions and demand, and to establish a comprehensive national assessment of critical minerals that identifies and quantifies known resources, estimates production costs, and assesses undiscovered resources. These goals are mainly to be carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey with local and state agency, academic, and industry help. The act also directs the National Academies and the National Academy of Engineering to conduct a study to design an interdisciplinary program on critical minerals and develop undergrad/grad level programs to train students in mineral supply chain issues. Additionally, the NSF will be asked to conduct competitive grant programs to fund new faculty positions, internships/scholarships/fellowships, and equipment purchases related to critical minerals research. The act authorizes $60,000,000 overall, with $20,000,000 for resource assessment programs, $4,000,000 for yearly analysis and forecasting, and $2,000,000 yearly for education and workforce programs. The act was sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and was referred to committee on 29 October 2013.

GSA's position statement emphasizes the need to assess domestic and global critical mineral resources to better understand how they are formed and devote resources to support critical minerals research and education. In December 2013, GSA cosponsored a USGS briefing titled "Critical Minerals: Ensuring America's Future," with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Speakers from the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology and the U.S. Geological Survey provided-up-to-date information about critical mineral resources, especially as they relate to international supply and current Congressional legislation; audio and slides from the briefing are online. Members can also reinforce GSA's critical minerals goals by supporting funding for geoscience organizations and institutions, encouraging research to help define how and why different minerals are "critical" and ways to exploit new resources and better use existing ones, and promoting mineral-resource education at all levels and in popular media. Click to learn more about the rationales and research supporting GSA's critical minerals position.

— Jessica Ball
GSA Science Policy Fellow