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House Republicans, leery of Democrats’ climate policies, are pushing an alternative agenda: reducing US reliance on foreign-sourced critical minerals for everything from green energy to military equipment.
“This country would be in dire straits” if adversary nations stopped selling the US critical minerals, Pete Stauber (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, said in an interview. “We need to move on this, and keep the safety and security of this country in the palm of our own hands.”
Republicans see increasing critical mineral extraction and processing in the US as one of their strongest arguments against what they characterize as the Biden administration’s failure to confront potential national security and economic problems linked to importing many minerals from countries with human rights abuses such as China, Russia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Congo supplies about 70% of the world’s cobalt, including to the US, and uses child labor to extract it.
Critical minerals are necessary not just for electric vehicle batteries and solar panels, but for many other aspects of the economy and American daily life, ranging from cell phones and computers, to medicine and defense weapons.
Democrats are skeptical of new mining in the US because of concerns over environmental pollution and resource degradation, but Republicans have said with the advent of smarter technology, mining can be done responsibly—protecting the environment while also boosting domestic production. That argument may help get bipartisan support for critical minerals legislation.
With Republicans narrowly controlling the House, the divisions will be on display Tuesday as two Energy and Commerce subcommittees vote on 16 energy bills, some related to critical minerals. One Republican measure (H.R. 1068) seeks to strengthen the domestic critical mineral supply chain and reduce dependence on imports.
A House Natural Resources subcommittee also on Tuesday will hold a hearing on Stauber’s legislation (H.R. 209) that would expedite permitting for mining on federal lands. Stauber’s bill, in the works for two years, could be included in an energy package House Republicans plan to unveil soon. Stauber aims to attract bipartisan support for his bill, which so far only has GOP cosponsors.
‘Not in My Backyard’
The administration has acknowledged the US needs to boost domestic mining and processing of critical minerals, as well as recycling for economic and national security. President Joe Biden has issued executive orders to ramp up production of critical minerals, while the Energy Department continues to disburse funding to strengthen the domestic critical mineral supply chain.
Congress has also provided more money for critical mineral and rare-earth manufacturing and processing through the bipartisan infrastructure law (Public Law 117-58), the CHIPS Act (Public Law 117-167), and the tax, climate, and health spending law known as the Inflation Reduction Act (Public Law 117-169).
Stauber’s district in northeastern Minnesota includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, near where Twin Metals Minnesota has long tried in vain to open a copper-nickel mine. The Interior Department in January put another nail in the project’s coffin: Secretary Deb Haaland signed a public land order withdrawing more than 225,000 acres of federal lands from mineral and geothermal leasing in the region for the next 20 years to protect the wilderness area.
“They may talk like they want to produce here, but their actions are different,” Stauber said of the administration, accusing Democrats of a “not in my backyard mentality” against mining. “All options are on the table to reverse the mining ban,” he said. Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Antofagasta Plc, a Chilean mining company and a top copper producer, would benefit from a reversal of the ban.
Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) said the national security issue is more complicated than simply spending on more new mines in the US.
“Just opening a mine in a place doesn’t solve this problem because we are talking about dozens of minerals that would have to be sourced from many geologic formations from all over the world as they currently are,” Stansbury, the Natural Resources Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee’s ranking member, said earlier this month during a subcommittee hearing about critical minerals.
Stansbury, whose parents worked in the fossil fuel industry in New Mexico, said the US must “use our international support systems and policies to help ensure that we are holding accountable those multinational corporations, some of which are based in the United States and elsewhere, to the highest human rights and environmental standards.”
The US critical minerals crunch this year is partly because of domestic policy, economics, international trade, and the permitting process, said Michael Moats, department chair of materials science and engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. “Permitting for getting new mines on just takes forever,” he said during the February hearing.
‘Too Special to Mine’
The US was a leading producer of copper, zinc, aluminum, and other elements by the 1970s but lost that primacy in subsequent decades, partly because of stricter environmental regulation but also due to international competition and commodity prices. While some rare-earth, nickel, and cobalt mining still happens in the US—a cobalt mine broke ground in Idaho in October—China, African countries, and Russia far surpass the US in production of those minerals. The US also imports critical minerals from allies, including Canada.
Russia is a leading producer of nickel and copper; the U.S. has increased tariffs on critical minerals from Russia, including aluminum, because of the war in Ukraine. The US imported about 5% of its aluminum from Russia in 2021.
The mining industry’s track record in the US is far from pristine, with communities raising concerns over pollution, particularly water contamination. Better technology, innovation in mining practices, and stronger environmental standards have helped reduce pollution but not eradicated the risk, said John Robison, public lands director at the Idaho Conservation League.
He said his group’s mission is to protect public lands and waters, but given Idaho’s legacy of mining, the group tries to take a pragmatic approach, assessing individual projects rather than making sweeping generalizations about mining.
“We recognize the need to develop things where the risks are manageable,” Robison said. “We are always open to hear how companies are doing things better, but responsible mining means recognizing that some places are too special to mine.”
While both parties recognize the importance of critical minerals and boosting the domestic supply chain, agreement on how to develop US natural resources while protecting the environment has been elusive. Some glimmers of cooperation exist.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told Natural Resources Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) earlier this month she wants to work with him to overhaul the federal permitting process, which would affect critical mineral projects.
She said fine-tuning the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act—which her late husband Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) helped write—is a necessity, and it can be done without rolling back environmental and health concerns. “I look at permitting reform as a tool to combat climate change, strengthen our economy, and protect our national security,” Dingell said. “But we must bring everyone to the table to do this right.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Natural Resources Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee and a co-author of the Green New Deal, sees legislative opportunity on critical minerals. “We are always looking at things from a climate perspective as well as a just transition perspective,” she said in a hallway interview this month. “We’re still working on our strategy as well.”
Stauber, who calls the Biden administration “hell-bent on not allowing our natural resources to be produced in this country,” still sees a way he and Ocasio-Cortez “will work fine together.” He said he’s spoken about energy and environment policy with Democrats on the committee.
He also defends his desire to protect northern Minnesota, where he hunts, fishes, and recreates: “I’ve worked, raised my family, and probably am going to die there.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Kellie Lunney in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org