Uniform and enthusiastic support was expressed at a January 28 hearing for the goals of a Senate bill to increase the domestic supply of critical minerals that are used in a wide range of high-technology products. The bipartisan nature of the Senate bill contrasts with a House bill passed last September on a largely party-line basis. The Administration has not yet taken an official position on the legislation.
“Minerals are the building blocks of our economy -- critical to our prosperity, our standard of living, and our competitiveness. We need a steady, affordable, and domestic supply of them -- mined here, refined here, processed here, and made into products here,” declared Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the Ranking Member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Murkowski is the sponsor of S. 1600, the Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2013, which enjoys the support of 18 of her Senate colleagues from both parties across a wide ideological spectrum. Murkowski introduced her bill in late October which seeks to improve the domestic supply of twenty critical minerals.
Committee members and hearing witnesses often referenced the successful seventeen-month effort culminating last fall in the enactment of legislation to assure the continued availability of helium. Of similar nature was the inclusion of a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act signed a year ago for the development of a domestic supply of the medical isotope molybdenum-99.
In his opening remarks Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) lauded Murkowski and Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) for their work in crafting a bipartisan bill that drew on legislation introduced by Udall in February 2011. Udall’s bill, S. 383, the Critical Minerals and Materials Promotion Act, incorporated the recommendations of a February 2011 report by the American Physical Society (an AIP Member Society) and the Materials Research Society (an AIP Affiliated Society) entitled “Energy Critical Elements: Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies.” Referring to House bill H.R. 761, the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013 that was passed on almost a party-line vote last September (with only 15 Democrats voting in favor), Wyden said he hoped the spirit of Senate bipartisanship would influence the House.
Calling her bill “bipartisan, practical, and fiscally responsible,” Murkowski spoke of the “different approaches” the House and Senate bills take, explaining that S.1600 “focused on the entire supply chain.” More about the provisions of S. 1600 is available here. Udall described his efforts in working with Republican Murkowski on the bill as a “labor of love.”
Two administration officials testified. David Danielson is the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy. He testified about the “importance of ensuring a stable, sustainable, domestic supply of critical minerals.” Regarding the bill itself, Danielson said DOE “is currently reviewing S. 1600 . . . and has no specific comments on the legislation at this time.” His statement and that of the second administration official about the bill were criticized by Murkowski for being “so nuanced that I can’t tell, which is not usually a good sign.” She noted the bill was introduced in October, was only 40-pages long, and that ample notice had been given of the hearing. “We need to move a bill” she said, asking Danielson for prompt action by DOE.
While U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Resources Program Coordinator Lawrence Meinert was circumspect in his written testimony, he was somewhat more expansive in his reply to Murkowski, stating “we have read the bill in detail and we are thrilled and delighted that a bill that focuses on mineral resources” was introduced. Meinert said the Department of Interior supports the goals of the legislation. This expression of support appeared to be more in terms of the goals of S. 1600 and not necessarily its provisions. The concluding statement in his written testimony declared “We note, however, that many of the activities called for in S. 1600 are already authorized by existing authorities. Any activities conducted to fulfill the objectives of the bill would require substantial resources and would need to compete for funding with other priorities.” S. 1600 would authorize a critical minerals program, but not fund it.
Questions from other senators centered on the medical isotope molybdenum-99, USGS assessment of domestic minerals, and coordination among various federal agencies. No senator expressed opposition to the bill.
The second panel of witnesses was from the private and university sectors. They included a vice president from a company that is bringing into full production a California site to mine and process rare earth products. Representatives from two end use industries (automobiles and semiconductors) testified in support of the bill, as did a representative of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Also testifying was Roderick Eggert, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines and the Deputy Director of the Critical Materials Institute, an Energy Innovation Hub of the Department of Energy. Eggert was a member of the APS/MRS panel that wrote the energy critical elements report referenced above. Eggert and the other witnesses gave very favorable testimony in support of the bill. Prepared witness testimony and an archived hearing webcast are available here.
In their concluding remarks Wyden and Murkowski outlined the next steps for this legislation. Both spoke of the importance of gaining the Administration’s support for the bill. Also important, as was true for helium, is the need to educate Members of Congress and the general public about the importance of these critical elements. The timing for the passage of the helium bill was, one witnesses said, “a near miss,” and there is bipartisan recognition on both sides of the Capitol that critical minerals legislation needs to be passed. Said Murkowski in her opening statement, “Because our bill addresses such a significant issue - the critical minerals supply chain - and already has 19 members on board, I believe we could very well send it to the President this year. That would be a great win for this country.”