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US leaders address critical minerals

Trump order calls for an American critical mineral strategy

U.S. President Donald Trump sparked a renewed interest in critical minerals and metals when he issued an executive order calling on federal agencies to devise a strategy to ensure the United States has reliable supplies of these commodities vital to America's economic and strategic security.

"It shall be the policy of the federal government to reduce the nation's vulnerability to disruptions in the supply of critical minerals, which constitutes a strategic vulnerability for the security and prosperity of the United States," reads Executive Order 13817, signed by Trump at the end of 2017.

Critical minerals strategy ordered

Trump's critical minerals executive order instructed the secretaries of Interior and Defense to identify and publish a list of critical minerals, then develop a strategy to reduce the United States' reliance on other countries to supply these increasingly important ingredients to America's defensive and economic security.

The terms critical minerals and strategic minerals were first used in the United States during World War I. Over the ensuing century, however, the definitions of these overlapping terms have been somewhat subjective and been interpreted differently by various agencies and individuals depending on their priorities.

The United States Geological Survey now considers strategic minerals a subset of critical minerals and has established criteria to determine which minerals should be considered critical.

In an 862-page report, "Critical Mineral Resources of the United States – Economic and Environmental Geology and Prospects for Future Supply", the federal geological department defines critical minerals as "non-fuel minerals or mineral materials essential to the economic and national security of the United States; vulnerable to supply chain disruptions; and serve an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for the U.S. economy or security."

Using this definition, the federal geological survey has identified 35 minerals and metals critical to the U.S., at least 30 of which can be found in mines, deposits, and prospects across Alaska.

"For a number of these commodities – for example, graphite, manganese, niobium, and tantalum – the United States is currently wholly dependent on imports to meet its needs," according to the USGS report.

In its Mineral Commodities Summary 2019, the USGS identified 48 different minerals and metals for which the U.S. was net import reliant, 18 of which it imported 100 percent of its supply.

It is this dependence on foreign sources for minerals and metals vital to the manufacture of high-technology devises; green energy generation; and military hardware that has spurred a renewed interest in critical minerals in the United States.

Establishing a strategy

With the USGS establishing the critical minerals list, President Trump's executive order calls for:

• a strategy to reduce the nation's reliance on critical minerals;

• an assessment of progress toward developing critical minerals recycling and reprocessing technologies, and technological alternatives to critical minerals;

• options for accessing and developing critical minerals through investment and trade with our allies and partners;

• a plan to improve the topographic, geologic, and geophysical mapping of the United States and make the resulting data and metadata electronically accessible to support private sector mineral exploration of critical minerals; and

• recommendations to streamline permitting and review processes related to developing leases with the goal of enhancing the access, discovery, production and refining of critical minerals in the United States.

The critical minerals strategy and other directives of the executive order are being addressed in a report spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Commerce that is expected to include analyses and strategies to strengthen and sustain the supply chains for all minerals and metals, not just the 35 the USGS deemed critical based on the 2018 analysis.

Though slated for delivery to the White House by mid-November, this report had yet to land on the President's desk at the time this article was written.

Sources told Mining News in March that the U.S. critical minerals report is going through the review process and should be available by the time this article is published.

America's Achilles heel

While the Trump Administration is addressing critical minerals from the White House, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is urging Congress to pass legislation that will curb the United States' increasing dependence on foreign countries for its growing mineral needs.

"Over the past several years, our committee has sought to call attention to our reliance on foreign nations for minerals," Murkowski said while chairing the first natural resources committee hearing of the 116th Congress. "The administration has taken several important steps, but we must complement their actions with congressional legislation."

During the Feb. 5 hearing, Murkowski said the U.S. has come a long way in curbing its reliance on overseas supplies for oil and natural gas but continues to slide when it comes to the growing need for minerals.

"Whether we realize it or not, energy and minerals fuel our 21st Century economy and standard of living. Access to energy and minerals impacts everything from healthcare, to poverty levels, to defense readiness, and the strength of our manufacturing sector," the Alaska senator said. "In the past decade, we have seen a dramatic increase in domestic energy production and a corresponding decrease in our dependence on energy imports. This remarkable shift has led to substantial economic benefits here at home, while also giving us options to help our allies to achieve a level of energy security."

"In contrast to the energy sector, our nation is headed in the wrong direction on mineral imports," she added.

America's increasing reliance on foreign countries for minerals and metals comes at a time when new technologies, such as electric vehicles, are increasing the competition for global supplies.

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence Managing Director Simon Moores a global authority on lithium-ion batteries supply chains, told the resources committee that the U.S. is heavily dependent on foreign sources for the cobalt, graphite, lithium and nickel that are vital to EV batteries.

"We are in the midst of a global battery arms race in which the U.S. is presently a bystander," he said.

"Those who control these critical raw materials and those who possess the manufacturing and processing know-how, will hold the balance of industrial power in the 21st Century auto and energy storage industries," the lithium-ion battery expert added.

Murkowski said America's important reliance for the metals and minerals vital to the nation's economy is a vulnerability that needs to be fixed.

"This is our Achilles' heel that serves to empower and enrich other nations, while costing us jobs and international competitiveness," she said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Following this report, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced the American Mineral Security Act, or S.1317, which lays out a comprehensive plan for fostering domestic production of minerals considered critical to the United States; and Congressman Mark Amodei (R-Nevada)reintroduced he National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act (H.R. 2531), legislation designed to streamline the mine permitting process for critical minerals in the U.S. More information on both pieces of critical minerals legislation can be found in Addressing the critical mineral challenge, published in the May 10 edition of North of 60 Mining News.

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Publisher

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Over his more than 16 years of covering mining and mineral exploration, Shane has become renowned for his ability to report on the sector in a way that is technically sound enough to inform industry insiders while being easy to understand by a wider audience.


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