Senate Considers Lack of U.S. Renewables Building Block Minerals

By Published On: October 1, 2010

Rare earth minerals’ role in renewables production, international trade and security conflicts, as well as mining’s environmental consequences was the focus of the U.S. Senate Energy & Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Energy September 30. Rare earth minerals are used in wind turbine, plug-in vehicles, and solar photovoltaic production--yet the United States relies on China, primarily, for the source of those basic ingredients. “The 17 elements on the periodic table are increasingly important to future economic growth and national security,” said subcommittee chair Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA). “Fifteen years ago, the U.S. produced almost all [of those elements]. Now, we’re almost entirely dependent on imports from China.” Cobalt is one of the minerals in concern. It’s used in magnets, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is researching its use to store solar energy, according to Preston Rufe, Formation Capital environmental manager. He said that the U.S. consumes 60 percent of the earth’s high-purity cobalt. Most of that is derived from Congo and Zambia. “It’s controlled by entities unfriendly to the U.S. or unstable,” he added. To that end, there’s a proposed cobalt mine in Idaho. Governmental permits are a part of getting the operation in swing. “We want to be a facilitator rather than an inhibitor,” said Senator James Risch (R-ID). In addition to extraction, the U.S. has to consider the supply chain--that is, not only extraction, but refining and distribution--said Senator Mark Udall (D-CO). “The Department of Energy is paying a lot of attention to the clean energy supply chain technology from beginning to end,” said David Sandalow, assistant secretary, policy and international affairs, Department of Energy. “We’re looking to rebuild this type of technology” in the U.S., he added. Domestic mining remains an environmental concern, noted Cantwell. Industry representative did not dispute that importance. They inveigled, though, to streamline the processes necessary to begin U.S. operations.

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