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The U.S. Must Become a Rare Earths Powerhouse

As the U.S. develops new power sources, weapons systems and means of transport, we are increasingly relying on China to supply us with critical minerals—and that’s a strategic problem, writes former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in an op-ed for Newsweek.  

What’s going on: When it comes to strategic minerals, including rare earth elements needed for electric vehicle batteries, medical devices, cell phones and more, “we have fewer trusted suppliers of these most-critical minerals to lean on in tough times,” Esper writes.

  • “Adding urgency to this growing problem is the fact that Communist China has been cornering the market on these metals for years by heavily investing in mines, both at home and abroad, and adjusting its quota and regulatory policies to dominate the global supply chain.”
  • China makes up to 95% of the world’s EV-ready cobalt, as well as more than 80% of anodes and cathodes.

Why it’s important: Rare earths also play a crucial role in defense, as they’re components of American nuclear submarines and the Javelin missiles now being used successfully by Ukraine against the Russian military.

  • “For the United States to remain competitive, we cannot allow China to maintain control over the future of advanced technology, especially when it comes to our defense, transportation and IT sectors. This is an unacceptable risk, particularly considering Beijing’s expressed goal of dominating several key industries while also building a modern military capable of going toe-to-toe with the United States,” writes Esper.

What can be done: There’s no quick fix to the problem, Esper notes, but there is a path forward for the U.S.: taking back its title as a major rare earths producer.

  • “Breaking China’s near monopoly and ensuring that America can reliably field the weapons, develop the vehicles, produce the power and deploy the technologies of tomorrow will require a sustained, all-of-government response. It will undoubtedly take years—but America was once a major producer of rare earth minerals, and we can be again.”
  • And … the U.S. must also work with allies worldwide to broaden availability of rare earths, lower production costs and lessen risk “while also holding China accountable for its unfair trade practices in forums like the WTO.”

The NAM’s take:“Underestimation and a lack of urgency has eroded America’s critical mineral independence, but exponential demand for green energy, electric vehicles and advanced defense systems will see critical mineral applications far exceed current domestic availability,” said NAM Senior Director of Energy and Resources Policy Nile Elam.

  • “Recent efforts to invest in new processing facilities and recycling centers help, but federal policies that identify global supply chain vulnerabilities and opportunities, diversify raw materials availability and streamline duplicative permitting requirements will go a long way toward mitigating China’s vast influence on critical mineral production.”
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