Congress reacts to rare earth impasse
By Henry Leineweber, Resource Recycling
U.S. lawmakers are reacting strongly to recent moves by the Chinese government to reduce the production and export of rare earth metals.
"Our current reliance on other nations – in particular, China – for rare earth materials is disturbing, to say the least," said House Natural Resources Committee Member U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colorado) in a letter to the Department of Defense. "The global market has proved tumultuous over the last year as mining permits decrease, environmental laws and regulations increase, and export quotas limit supply while dramatically increasing prices."
Coffman, and other members of Congress are growing increasingly concerned about the potential national security implications of artificially-induced rare earth metal scarcity, following China's ongoing actions to control the supply of the materials. The Department of Defense is now exploring options for stockpiling and alternative sources of the materials. Rare earth metals are essential to the manufacture of semiconductors, integrated circuits and other electronic components and are found in everything from consumer electronics to missiles.
Currently, China controls between 90-95 percent of rare earth metal production. The country recently announced that the largest producer of the materials, Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare Earth Group, will suspend operations for one month to offset decreased demand in the wake of Japan's earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear power crisis.
In the 2011 Congressional session, nine bills relating to rare earth metals were introduced. However all bills are currently in committee, with the little formal action on the topic since the Senate and House versions of the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act were referred to their committees on June 23 and June 29, respectively. The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act would provide grants for the recycling of rare earth metals and research funding, if passed.