Critical minerals legistlation remains stalled in Congress

September 25, 2019

Despite the growing popularity of electric vehicles, and in turn, the growing demand for the materials that power those vehicles, the U.S. Congress has yet to pass legislation designed to streamline mine permitting and fund geological studies that could help speed domestic production of lithium and other metals need for the vehicles.

China remains the world’s largest producer of rare earth materials as well as electric vehicle batteries and processor of lithium and consumer of copper. Without legislation to move the American supply chain forward, many fear the United States will only fall further behind China.

“We don’t have great clarity on what the legislative timelines are,” Keith Phillips, chief executive of Piedmont Lithium Ltd., which is developing a lithium mine in North Carolina, told Reuters. “This pending legislation would be a big positive” to help secure investment.

Existing bills before congress, if passed and signed into law by President Donald Trump, streamline regulation; fund research into rare earths extraction from coal; allow formation of a rare earths co-operative, bypassing antitrust laws; push the Pentagon to seek new minerals supplies; and speed approval of mine permits.

The continued delay leaves the United States reliant on others for many specialized minerals as the global economy becomes electrified after more than a century of reliance on fossil fuels.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, chair of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, expressed confidence her legislation will eventually pass as it awaits a full Senate vote.

Senators Joe Manchin and Marco Rubio have introduced similar legislation, as have U.S. House of Representatives members.

It is not unusual for legislation to stall in Congress, and few major bills have passed this year. But the snail’s pace has irked business leaders used to the faster pace of corporate America.

“I know there is frustration when do you don’t see legislation moving, but that doesn’t meet we have not been working steadily and aggressively,” said Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who warned at a Senate hearing last week that the United States is losing the race to extract and refine minerals used for electric vehicles.

In July, Trump signed an executive order directing the Pentagon to find sources of rare earths outside of China. But that order could be reversed by Trump’s successor.

Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said legislation is “inevitable” to bolster domestic production. “We can’t sit here and think five to 10 years down the road that we’ll be hunkydory with China or anyone else,” he said.

Meanwhile, the electric vehicle industry continues to grow. Last week, Amazon.com Inc. said it would buy 100,000 electric delivery vans, the largest electric vehicle order in history.

Rivian Automotive LLC will build the vans at its Normal, Illinois, facility, which will import the lithium and other key minerals used in the batteries. Miners said that should be another wake-up call for Washington.

“I deeply appreciate Murkowski and Manchin’s legislation, said James Calaway, chairman of ioneer Ltd. which is developing a lithium and boron project in Nevada. “But the industrial needs that are out there to spur this industry and create an equitable playing field will require substantially larger resources than currently under consideration.”

 

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