Subcommittee Examines Federal Initiatives to Ensure U.S. Access to Critical Materials

Jun 14, 2011
Subcommittee Examines Federal Initiatives to Ensure U.S. Access to Critical Materials

Witnesses Say Government Should Work with Industry to Diversify Supply,
Develop Alternatives, and Share Information

Washington, DC - Today the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing to examine the federal perspective on a national critical materials strategy, aimed at securing strategic access to materials including rare earth elements, or “rare earths,” as well as other materials vital to our nation’s high-tech manufacturing.

Rare earths possess unique physical and chemical properties that make them particularly suitable for use in advanced technologies, such as high powered magnets, petroleum refining catalysts, batteries, lasers, as well as cell phones and blackberries.

Chairing today’s hearing Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) said, “While I appreciate the need for federal research, I believe we should distinguish between basic and applied research, recognizing that the government may have a role to play in the former, but that it should not duplicate, nor preempt work that rightfully should be done by industries.”

For about two decades, the price of imported Chinese rare earths and critical materials has been artificially low, largely due to Chinese policies.  As a result of these policies, and stringent rules regarding environmental standards, U.S. suppliers were unable to compete.  However, since the Chinese have recently restricted exports, prices have gone up and suppliers outside of China have made progress entering the market.

In his opening remarks, Hultgren noted that “there are those who say that we shouldn't fret over these conditions because the financial markets will ultimately correct the situation,” specifically mentioning the expansion of Lynas Corporation in Australia, and the recent growth of Molycorp in the United States. Hultgren continued, “In the interim though, we still need a plan, one that should assess issues such as: stockpiling, permitting, research and development, workforce development, recycling, information gathering, and manufacturing and production incentives.”

Today’s hearing follows up on a hearing held last year where the Subcommittee heard from scientists and witnesses from industry and academia.  Today, government witnesses discussed their collaboration on an interagency working group on critical and strategic materials supply chains.  

Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that while the Administration has not assumed a formal position on any of the legislative efforts, he supports the three main focuses of H.R. 2090, the Energy Critical Elements Advancement Act, introduced by Rep. Hultgren: information gathering, research, and recycling.

When asked his position on stockpiling of rare earth elements, Holdren said that he has “serious reservations” about the Government investing in stockpiles.  He further said that research in materials has great potential to lead to less expensive “substitutes” for the materials the U.S. is currently importing.

The following witnesses testified today before the Subcommittee:
Dr. John P. Holdren, Director, Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP)

Mr. David Sandalow, Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)

Mr. Jeff L. Doebrich, Program Coordinator (Acting), Mineral Resources Program, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)