In-Depth: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to allow for the development of technology capable of extracting rare earth elements (REEs) from coal and coal byproducts to re-establish a U.S. based supply chain:
“As the leader of the free world, the United States should not be depending on China and other foreign nations for our supply of rare earth elements. We utilize REEs in the production of everything from our cell phones and televisions to strategic weapons systems. REEACT will ensure continued research in the technologies that will allow us to produce REEs from coal and coal byproducts. This important technology would go a long way in re-establishing our domestic production which is critically important to our national security.”
Original cosponsor Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) says:
“Rare earth elements are essential to our economy and national security, but the United States is currently dependent on foreign suppliers—particularly China—for this valuable resource. As it turns out, rare earth elements can be extracted from coal and its byproducts, including fly ash and acid mine drainage, and extracting these materials provides a financial incentive for cleaning up legacy mine sites. This legislation would help support the research and development of these technologies, a win-win-win for Appalachia’s economy, the environment, and our national defense.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who is this bill’s second original cosponsor, adds:
“Breaking our foreign mineral dependence is critical to the future of manufacturing in America. While we seek to ensure reasonable access for responsible mining and reform our permitting process, we can’t forget opportunities to develop technologies to extract minerals from coal and coal byproducts. This bill is another step forward in our efforts to strengthen our nation’s mineral and economic security.”
James Wood, Interim Director of the West Virginia Energy Institute, expressed support for this bill:
“WVU, the only R1 ranked research university in West Virginia, applauds Senator Manchin’s foresight introducing this bill and Senator Capito for joining him as a co-sponsor. Economic rare earth extraction from Appalachia mine wastes has multiple benefits to West Virginia, and the United States. First, rare earth extraction helps the United States become an increasingly independent producer of metals needed for high technology devices, and United States security; second, extracting these metals involves processes that will help clean up mine sludge and acid mine drainage and reduce the environmental impacts of coal production.”
Testifying to Congress in May 2019, Joe Balash, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the Department of the Interior, testified:
“The Department is committed to promoting domestically sourced critical minerals. Doing so will create and sustain jobs, promote U.S. technological innovation, and reduce our Nation’s vulnerability to disruptions in the critical mineral supply chain… We are grateful for the hard work that has been done to draft legislation that will help us fulfill the critical minerals strategy developed in response to Executive Order 13817, A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals.”
This bill has two Republican cosponsors in the 116th Congress. Last Congress, this bill passed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources by majority voice vote without any cosponsors.
Of Note: The National Energy Technology Lab (NETL) began studying the potential of extracting REEs from coal and coal byproducts in 2010 and expanded its REE research efforts in 2014. It hopes to demonstrate REE separation technologies by 2023-2025 that will show these technologies can be economically deployed to create a domestic REE supply, reduce the environmental impact of coal and REE production through advances in REE production from coal and coal byproducts and deliver advanced technologies that can be developed and manufactured domestically. NETL was granted $18 million in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019.
In 2016, NETL’s Rare Earth Elements (REE) from Coal and Coal Byproducts RD&D Program awarded two grants to West Virginia University for researchers to the potential uses of REEs from coal byproducts in the region. In July 2018, WVU, in collaboration with NETL, opened a pilot scale REE extraction facility to continue its research towards commercialization.
According to NETL and annual estimates, acid mine drainage sludge in West Virginia and Pennsylvania contains approximately 45,000 tons of REEs each year. In May 14, 2019, testimony to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the Water Research Institute at West Virginia University’s Energy Institute, expounded on this finding:
“WVU researchers have found REE concentrations in acid mine drainage from various Appalachian sources that exceed many of the world's best commercial deposits. Where most conventional rare earth deposits are encased in hard rock and located in the remote wilderness, AMD sludge is already extracted from the host rock and easily accessible resulting in modest processing costs… Long after mining is done, the mines still generate AMD and REE. Some of the richest acid mine drainage comes from sites where mining ceased 30 years ago.”
Ziemkiewicz also noted that there are few barriers to recovering REEs from acid mine drainage and that the current generation from northern and central Appalachian mines could meet the U.S. defense establishment’s needs:
“Recovering rare earths from acid mine drainage doesn’t require much permitting. You’ve already got infrastructure, you've got a workforce, you've got SMCRA permits required by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and the state and Federal clean water permits… Northern and central Appalachian coal mines generate about 800 tons of rare earths per year. That’s a fraction of total U.S. AMD production but that’s still enough for the U.S. defense establishment. The overall economy uses much more, about 16,000 tons per year.”.
Rare earth elements (REEs) — which are often referred to as “critical minerals” or “technology metals” — are a group of 17 chemical elements (the “lanthanides,” which are elements 57-71 in the periodic table, plus elements 21 and 39, which tend to occur with the lanthanides in ore bodies). Their economic importance and demand for them is increasing because their electrochemical properties make them useful in a wide range of consumer products, including cell phones, computer drives, and GPS devices; clean energy technologies, including electric motors for hybrid vehicles and wind turbines; and numerous industrial, medical, and defense applications, including high-temperature superconductors, aerospace components, oil refining, fiber optics, lasers, cancer treatment, and medical imaging. In May 2019, the entire class of REEs was officially classified as a critical mineral under Executive Order 13817.
The U.S. Geological Survey reports that the U.S. imported at least 50% of 48 minerals in 2018. Of those 48 minerals, the U.S. imported 100% of 18 of them, including 100% of the nation’s supply of rare earth elements, graphite and indium. This is a marked uptick in reliance on international sources: according to Sen. Murkowski’s office, the U.S. imported 100% of only 11 different minerals and 50% of another 26 minerals as recently as 1997. With this trend in mind, Simon Moores, managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, argues that the U.S. is in the middle of a “global battery arms race”:
“Senator Murkowski has taken a true leading role in US supply chain security for the critical minerals that are the foundation of the 21st century automotive and energy industries. We are in the midst of a global battery arms race that is intensifying. Lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel are the key enablers of the lithium ion battery and, in turn, the lithium ion battery is the key enabler of the energy storage revolution. Globally, they are facing a wall of demand especially from electric vehicles yet the US has been a bystander in building a domestic supply chain capacity. Right now, the US produces 1% of global lithium supply and only 7% of refined lithium chemical supply, while China produces 51%. For cobalt, the US has zero mining capacity and zero chemicals capacity whilst China controls 80% of this second stage. Graphite is the most extreme example with no flake graphite mining and anode production compared to China’s 51% and 100% of the world’s total, respectively. And its a similar story with nickel: under 1% mined in the US and zero capacity for nickel sulfate. These supply chains are the oil pipelines of tomorrow. The lithium ion battery is to the 21st century is what the oil barrel was to the 20th century. Senator Murkowski’s focus on not just the mineral resources but the entire supply chain is absolutely crucial to giving the industry confidence to build a US blueprint for the energy storage revolution.”
Thanks to its control over much of the world’s lithium processing and supply, China dominates the electric vehicle supply chain, producing nearly 66% of the world’s lithium ion barriers (versus America’s 5%). Securing America’s Future Energy, a nonpartisan advocacy group for renewable energies, contends that this may be detrimental to future U.S. energy independence. Robbie Diamond, the organization’s founder and president, says, “The [U.S.] should not go from dependence on oil from the Middle East for transportation, to dependence on China for electric vehicles and batteries.”
In testimony to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee on May 14, 2019, Dr. John Warner, Chairman of the National Alliance for Advanced Technology Batteries, argued that the energy materials supply chain challenge in the North America has two components: “the market price problem and the geopolitical problem.” Warner described the market price problem, in which energy materials supply and energy materials demand differ wildly over short periods of time, as a product of the energy market’s inherent characteristics. However, he also added that this characteristic of the energy materials market has led Chinese companies, “acting almost certainly at the behest of the Chinese government,” to buy up energy materials supply sources around the world in order to ensure that Chinese battery manufacturers will have access to reasonably stable supplies of low-cost energy materials, benefitting Chinese businesses at the cost of other nations’ businesses. This, Warner argues, then poses a public policy problem for the U.S., forcing U.S. policymakers to decide what strategic industries the country will invest in to regain leadership in and dominance of the global energy materials supply market. It also creates what Warner characterizes as “the geopolitical problem” precipitated by the threat of disruptions to energy materials supplies by foreign actors: a risk that both China and the U.S. are acutely aware of.
The U.S.-China trade war is making America’s exposure to Chinese threats in this area known. As trade tensions have escalated, China-watchers have raised the possibility of China cutting of rare earth exports to the U.S. — a fear that was stoked by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s and his top trade negotiator’s visit to a rare earth mining and processing plant in China’s eastern Jiangxi province (the province is a key rare earths mining area).
However, Eugene Gholz, an advisor to the U.S. government on rare earths, argues that China’s leverage over the rare earths market doesn’t pose a serious threat. In an October 2014 report for the Council on Foreign Relations, he writes:
“[P]olicymakers should not succumb to pressure to act too quickly or too expansively in the face of raw materials threats. Not all such threats are like that posed by the historical precedent that is typically invoked: the 1973 oil crisis… Caution about overstating raw materials threats is particularly advisable because where foreign policy or intelligence analysts see a potential for dangerous market concentration and economic coercion, some businesses are also likely to see an opportunity to introduce competition and make a profit, ameliorating risks.”
Five Western companies, including U.S.-based BHE Renewables, are developing U.S. lithium projects that plan to use new technologies to extract lithium from clays, bromine and even oilfield waste. Some analysts consider these processes — which aren’t common elsewhere — game-changing. If all five projects come online by 2022 as planned, the U.S. would produce at least 77,900 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent each year, which would make it one of the world’s largest lithium producers.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / agnormark)