The Biden administration announced actions taken by the federal government and private industry that it says will bolster the supply chain for rare earths and other critical minerals used in technologies from household appliances and electronics to defense systems. They say these steps will reduce the nation’s dependence on China, a major producer of these elements.
“China controls most of the global market in these minerals,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday from the White House. “We can’t build a future that’s made in America if we ourselves are dependent on China for the materials that power the products of today and tomorrow.”
The steps include a $35 million contract to MP Materials to process heavy rare earth elements at the company’s Mountain Pass, California, production site — the first processing and separation facility of its kind in the United States.
In 2020, the government awarded $9.6 million to the company, which owns the only American rare earths mine. The $35 million announcement Tuesday will complement the $700 million that MP Materials will invest by 2024 to create an American rare earth magnetics supply, said company CEO James Litinsky, who spoke virtually at the White House event.
Last June, following an executive order from Biden, the administration released a report on the supply chain, concluding an over-reliance on China for critical minerals. Currently, China controls 87% of the global permanent magnet market, as well as 55% of rare earths mining capacity and 85% of its refining.
What Beijing is holding right now is critical, said Phoebe Moon, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine, focusing on global supply chains and economic statecraft.
“We are using more hydro energy. We are using more climate and environmentally friendly energy sources,” Moon told VOA. “And the list of rare earth materials that the Biden administration announced that they will be targeting on this issue really has that in its heart.”
Rare earths are 17 minerals that are not rare, just difficult and costly to mine and process cleanly. The U.S. is the second-biggest miner of rare earths, after China, according to the latest government data. Other top miners include Myanmar, Australia, Madagascar, India, Russia, Thailand, Vietnam and Brazil.
The administration’s goal is to become reasonably self-sufficient for some key essential industries such as auto and network equipment for national security and competitiveness, said Jen-Yi Chen, associate professor of operations and supply chain management at Cleveland State University.
“By ‘reasonably,’ I mean not 100% ending our dependence on the Chinese, since it would be too costly and not sustainable, as we are not that resource-rich and thus need to prioritize and focus on the real essentials,” Chen told VOA. “By and large, in the near future, we may still need the Chinese inputs and capacity to keep prices low for the nonessentials but should not compromise much on the essentials.”
Chen said ramping up domestic production, despite its environmental costs, still makes sense.
“In case of a shutdown in operations, the time to recover will be much shorter than going to partners, especially during the pandemic,” Chen added. It may also motivate better environmental oversight as “they are now right in our backyard.”
Earlier this week Beijing announced sanctions aimed to restrict access to rare earth minerals to Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, two companies that provide maintenance services to Taiwan’s missile defense systems. Beijing considers Taiwan its breakaway province.
Last month, legislators introduced a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate that could prohibit defense contractors from procuring rare earths from China by 2026 and force the Pentagon to create a strategic reserve of those minerals by 2025.
“The Chinese Communist Party has a chokehold on global rare earth element supplies, which are used in everything from batteries to fighter jets. Ending America’s dependence on the CCP for extraction and processing of these elements is critical to winning the strategic competition against China and protecting our national security,” said Republican Senator Tom Cotton, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Moon said recognizing the importance of critical minerals supply chains is a great start, but there must also be fundamental, cooperative efforts to keep geopolitics stable.
“The problems we face today cannot be solved by ourselves in many cases, and these efforts to reshore and ally-shore will create an echo chamber and undermine our efforts to understand each other, creating peace in a more fundamental way,” she said, referring to efforts to move production domestically or to friendly countries.
Also at the White House event on Tuesday, Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables announced it is setting up a facility to test the commercial viability to extract lithium from geothermal brines at Imperial County, California, an area that contains some of the largest deposits of lithium in the world.
Other steps the White House announced include partnerships with Ford and Volvo for the collection and recycling of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries, a $140 million pilot project to recover rare earth elements and critical minerals from mine waste, and a $3 billion investment in refining and recycling battery materials.
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