Rare earth rocks Congress, clean energy industry

The National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act recently passed 256 to 160 in the U.S. House mostly along party lines with GOP voting primarily in favor.

Haven't heard of it?

Hardly surprising. Metals and mining don't usually inspire excitement amongst the general public. The act would make it easier to begin mining the obscure minerals used in solar, wind and other green industry applications. Production currently is dominated by China.


An exception to this apathy for all things mineral is epitomized by my 15-year-old son Kiefer. He's addicted to the online game Minecraft, which involves seeking out various ores used to build and create structures, transportation networks and whatever else resides in the gamer's imagination. Kiefer, along with about 6.7 million others, purchased the game. They build entire civilizations, often while linked to other gamers.

These gamers understand the importance of metal, at least to a degree.

Society needs the stuff. Iron and steel are the building blocks of civilization. The first blacksmith to produce a perfectly balanced sword found his product in high demand. Wars were won with less.

The importance of rare earth

Precision-crafted folded steel and a sword edge that cleaves an opponent's armor like butter are less important in this age of complex technological advances. (But such devices make great movies, for example "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.")

Metals like lanthanum, cerium, yttrium and neodymium have risen to the forefront today because of their value creating many of the devices and mechanisms integral to clean energy -- wind turbines, batteries and the like.

That's why companies like Los Angeles-based American Elements, which supplies such rare earth metals, have gone public in support of the proposed National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act.

Mining act details

The bill's text says exploration and subsequent production of rare earth minerals would contribute significantly to the U.S. economy and "general welfare of the country," and that industrialization of China and India has driven demand. It warns of China's potential dominance of a resource so "necessary for telecommunications, military technologies, healthcare technologies, and conventional and renewable energy technologies."

The bill says it would require the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to more efficiently develop domestic sources and "enhance government coordination on permitting and review by avoiding duplicative reviews." Getting a mine permitted and operating takes a heck of a lot of time in today's regulatory climate.

Exactly how the act would make it all work is something to be worked through in committee. However, this is resource friendly legislation. The word strategic is used.

Corporate connection

American Elements says U.S. National Laboratories and companies like General Electric, Honeywell, General Motors and Boeing have come out in favor of the proposed act.

"The U.S. environmental movement is simply shooting itself in the foot on this one," says Michael Silver, CEO of American Elements, in a statement. He says all parties must appreciate the "whole supply chain to building the energy efficient non-polluting America."

To build an electric car, wind turbine or fuel cell requires lanthanum and neodymium, both classified rare earth metals. Solar panels require indium. Advanced batteries require lithium. Yet this country mines virtually none of them in large part because of the newness of green technologies.

"Even the most ardent environmentalist would agree we do not have 40 years to begin dealing with carbon emissions and global warming," Silver says. "Now is the time to appreciate the fundamental relationship between metal mining and America's energy independent future and to do what is necessary to realize that future as soon as possible."

Happy Road memories

Mining certainly can be messy. Happy Road in Fairbanks, Alaska was the site of mid 20th century gold mining. The signs were obscured by several decades by the time I considered it kid paradise. Telltale signs were a swath of fine-ground golden sand and hulking rusted machinery that processed lode ore that had been drawn from inside the base of Murphy Dome.

The rest of Fairbanks was a mess. Miners washed away entire hillsides and valleys to get at the gold. They left nothing but rocks and gravel. Later in the 1970s and early 1980s, a modern mining operation even destroyed much of the old Happy Road site.

But that's progress.

Mining can be done efficiently and without too much disruption to the environment. But it needs environmental oversight. Rules dictating the how, where and why must be reached in full view with a healthy dose of skepticism.