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U.S. House debates which minerals should be considered “critical”

Mine workers are surrounded by dust as a drill bit chews into the wall of the mine.
Claire Harbage
Mine workers are surrounded by dust as a drill bit chews into the wall of the mine.

News brief: 

A recent U.S. House hearing that centered on a relatively unknown segment of federal energy policy quickly evolved into a discussion on how much the government should prioritize mining.

The Committee on Natural Resources focused on the U.S. Geological Survey’s list of critical minerals. The tally list includes several dozen well-known elements like aluminum, platinum and titanium. It also has lesser-known minerals – like lithium, cobalt and neodymium – that are used in modern technologies such as cell phone batteries and semiconductors,

Roderick Eggert, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, testified that the list helps guide public policy surrounding energy development and scientific research.

“Why have a list? The simple answer – perhaps a statement of the obvious – is to inform public policy to prioritize things like research and development activities, geologic mapping, market analysis [and] aspects of commercial policy, such as tax credits,” he said.

Several representatives and witnesses criticized the list, particularly because it no longer has uranium, helium and some other elements on it. Utah Mining Association President Brian Somers said it was evidence that the U.S. is not realizing its full mining potential.

“There are far too many minerals which are unnecessarily unavailable and constrained because we've neglected our nation's vast mineral resources, our highly trained mining workforce and our unrivaled capacity for innovation,” he said.

Meanwhile, others worry that expanding the list – or using it to justify mining faster and in more places – could harm the environment and tribal communities. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., warned against triggering a free for all.

“Mining has repeatedly destroyed public lands and nearby communities,” he said. “With that in mind, we need to think very carefully about how we use the critical minerals list. Some of my colleagues think this list is a free pass to open new mines that rush through or ignore environmental reviews and public input.”

Minerals like uranium will continue to be controversial as the U.S. transitions from traditional fossil fuels and global suppliers like Russia face increased scrutiny.

For its part, the Biden administration is trying to appeal to a range of people focused on mining. It recently proposed reforms that could toughen cleanup requirements on public lands, but has also argued that permitting processes need to speed up.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.

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