Cantwell Chairs Hearing on Likely Rare Earth Metal Supply Constraints, Efforts to Counter Chinese Monopoly

Minerals critical to development and production of clean-energy technologies, electronics

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) chaired a hearing on concerns about the availability of “rare earth” minerals and other strategic metals that are vital to clean energy technologies such as batteries in electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind turbine generators. Expert testimony in the hearing focused on concerns that limited supplies of these substances in the United States could constrict technological advancement and economic growth. There are 17 rare earth ores that are used to make key components in a wide array of modern technologies. Nearly all of the rare earth materials used in the U.S. come from China, which cut its rare earths export quota by 72 percent for the second half of this year. 
“When people think of strategic minerals for modern technology, they are often thinking of so-called ‘rare earths’ -- seventeen elements on the periodic table with strange names, like samarium, promethium, and europium,” said Senator Cantwell, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy.
Rare earths are employed in a wide range of high-tech products that are increasingly essential to our modern lifestyles, and our future economic growth, and our national security,” Cantwell said. “And then there is the particular emphasis of today’s hearing: clean energy technology.  Here too, rare earths are finding wide application, particularly in the most efficient, cutting edge applications.  Including rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles, generators for wind turbines, and glass for solar panels.”
Fifteen years ago, the United States was the world’s largest producer of rare earth minerals. But the last major rare earth mine in the U.S. was closed in 2002.  Last year China produced more than 97 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals even though it has only a little over one-third of worldwide rare earth reserves.   According to the Congressional Research Service, China holds 36 percent of the world’s reserves of rare earths; the U.S. holds about 13 percent, and the rest is distributed in other countries. The hearing also examined supply concerns in other strategic minerals. 
“Beyond the official rare earths are numerous other strategic minerals that also play a critical role in modern clean energy technologies,” said Senator Cantwell. “They include copper, lithium, indium, gallium, selenium, cadmium, cobalt, and others.  While not all of these are rare, the United States is increasingly dependent on foreign providers for many of them.  And we are not just dependent for the ore; we depend on other countries for many refining steps in the supply chain.”
Even with plans to resume operations at the Mountain Pass mine in California, retooling needs and production time will likely mean a continuation of supply constraints over the next several years.  Additionally, there are concerns about ensuring that mining is done with a minimal environmental impact.  Other concerns about rare earths include shortage of U.S. scientists devoted to research and development of rare earth elements.  Cantwell also queried the witnesses on opportunities to recycle rare earth materials from discarded electronics, federal government plans are to address looming supply constraints, and ways to improve data collection and ensure greater transparency in the strategic metal supply chains.
David Sandlow, the Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs at the Department of Energy; Dr. Roderick Eggert, Professor at the Colorado School of Mines; and Preston Rufe, Environmental Manger at Formation Capital Corporation testified before the committee. Peter Brehm, Vice President of Business Development and Government Relations of Infinia Corporation of Kennewick, WA, also testified before the committee, discussing the importance of rare earth metals, to both Infinia and their suppliers.
“The loss or disruption of the rare earth metals supply would be catastrophic to Infinia in terms of price spikes, production volume and related supply chain disruptions that would drastically limit our ability to develop and manufacture our products,” Brehm testified.  “Rare earth metals are simply a necessity for the development, manufacturing and advancement of Infinia’s technology, as well as many other modern essentials.”