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As Concern Over Critical Minerals Grows, U.S. Must Step Up

There is more to President Trump’s engagement with Greenland than meets the eye. Though some have panned his comments, seasoned observers believe the president’s motivations are part of a broader effort to secure a U.S. supply of rare earth elements amid a burgeoning reliance on China for this essential material. In June, the U.S. quietly signed an agreement with the Arctic country to survey its land to help spur mineral exploration. Greenland is believed to house a significant resource of rare earths, a group of elements necessary for critical defense and commercial technology. These efforts follow a growing interest, within U.S. policy circles, in rare earth dependency. However, if policymakers want to get serious about securing U.S. access to rare earths, any real solution must include investing in our domestic production capabilities. 

That the United States, the fourth-largest country in the world by land area, should have enough reserves of rare earths to power energy sources and military forces for the foreseeable future is unsurprising. After all, the U.S. was the world’s largest, and often sole, producer of rare earths for much of the 20th century. What is surprising, however, is that the U.S. no longer holds this distinction in the 21stcentury — in fact, far from it. Our ceding of leadership in the mining and processing of critical materials has contributed to China’s rise as the world’s number one producer of rare earths. Though China’s rapid ascension in this domain may appear circumstantial, experts say otherwise: It’s been part of that country’s strategy for 30 years. In the 1980s, the government significantly assisted Chinese industry in building rare earth processing capacity with the goal, since realized, of being the world’s dominant supplier. 

The Chinese government freely admits its intention to utilize its rare earth capabilities as a sword and shield against U.S. interests. Accordingly, the United States must respond by developing our own domestic production and supply of this precious resource — one secure from foreign influence. Recent actions by the White House and Congress give reason for optimism on this front. In July, the White House released Presidential Determinations declaring five rare earth technologies critical to the national defense and deserving of official Department of Defense support. Such determinations are required under current law before government investments can be made into rare earths facilities. This is a huge first step for an industry that has had trouble raising capital since the embarrassing Molycorp fiasco. Funding innovative new rare earth processing technologies will help domestic industry build a supply chain that is cost-competitive with China while avoiding the significant negative environmental and health effects that the Chinese have been willing to shoulder in exchange for low-cost production.  

In conjunction, the U.S. House of Representatives included an important provision in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act this year that required the Pentagon to promulgate guidance on the acquisition of rare earth elements as part of a strategy to eliminate dependence on China by 2035. The provision also directs the DoD to aid in the qualification and certification of domestic rare earth producers in order to provide new sources for rare earths outside of China.

Meanwhile, the White House did its part at the front end, determining that rare earths are critical and paving the way for further DoD investment in promising rare earth manufacturing technologies. 

These are the types of actions the U.S. must continue to take to free us from our rare earths dependency. Rare earths are not the first critical material subject to unfair supply pressures from foreign powers. They will not be the last. In the past, the U.S. government has shown an interest in supporting domestic production of critical materials through a variety of measures, including domestic sourcing restrictions and direct government funding. All of these tools should be brought to bear to build a secure rare earth supply chain, especially when the consequences of inaction are clear and dire. China should not underestimate the innovation of American miners and manufacturers in helping the U.S. to counter Chinese aggression. In the same vein, the U.S. must not either. 

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

Jeff Green