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This week Earthworks staff received a draft of a bill that will become the Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2013. The legislation directs the United States Geological Survey to draw up a list of minerals critical to our nation’s needs and creates a series of policies designed to improve manufacturing, production, permitting, recycling, and alternatives to these metals.

What We Know and Don’t Know

This bill’s best feature includes a long overdue study to document the number of abandoned hardrock mines in this country. Earthworks estimates the number around 500,000– creating billions of dollars in taxpayer funded cleanup liability. This proposal also requires the National Academy of Sciences to provide an update on efforts to improve inspection and enforcement of hardrock mine sites on Federal land with an aim toward preventing unnecessary or undue degradation.  The Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture will also develop recommendations to ensure mining occurs consistent with with protecting public health and Federal reviews of mine proposals lead to a healthier and cleaner environment.

How Critical is Critical?

We have some sense already about which minerals are critical. First among them are the so-called rare earth minerals. Rare earth mineral is a misnomer. As Forbes Magazine contributor Tim Worstall reminds us: They are neither rare nor are they earths. In fact, they are fairly abundant, often mined in conjunction with other metals. The minerals we mean include numbers 57-71 on the periodic table, the lanthanum series, with number 39 yttrium and 21 scandium tossed in there because they share similar chemical properties. Those properties help make possible some of our favorite toys like LCD screens, cell phones, hybrid car batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, and predator drones.

Minerals not strategic for their chemical properties nor especially susceptible to chokes in the supply chain do not deserve the “critical” designation. I worry about creating unintended politicization of certain run-of-the-mill metals like copper and uranium. We saw some of this play out during the debate over the House’s version of critical minerals legislation HR 761. Members of the House Majority advocating for 761’s passage spoke about how we need lead for bullets, uranium for energy, and copper for electricity. Sure. I need orange juice to quench my thirst. Just because something has an important use or application, does not make it critical. Nor does it become critical just because there’s a nickel deposit in a given Congressional district.

How Long Does it Take to Beat a Dead Horse?

This bill is an improved version of an earlier proposal Earthworks opposed during the 112th Congress. That bill, S. 1113, created a fairly rigid regime for setting strict performance metrics and timelines for permitting mines. We learned during the debate over HR 761 that we don’t have a strategic minerals permitting problem in the United States. In fact, most mines on public lands receive a permit within 3 or 4 years. There’s nothing wrong with government efficiency and greasing the wheels of the bureaucracy to make the system work better as long as doing so does not impair the rights of affected communities to voice their objections.

Mining in 2013 not in 1872

We currently have mining regulations that allow mine operators to dump their toxic waste directly in lakes, rivers, and streams. We have laughably inadequate bonds that put industry interests over the public interest. Protecting communities and water supplies should be the focus of federal reform efforts, and legislation should give force behind the law’s admonition to prevent unnecessary and undue degradation. We welcome efforts to study our nation’s critical mineral needs, with particular emphasis on promoting recycling and seeking alternatives. We need a shift away from the preoccupation with permitting times toward a serious mining policy meant for the 21st century.