A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on defense applications for rare earth minerals managed to escape this past April (H/T Federation of American Scientists). Anyone interested in the issue of domestic production of rare earth materials should take a gander. It also has a nice overview of what is meant by rare earth minerals and discusses possible policy options for Congress to consider. Some highlights that captured my interest:
- DOD uses less than 5% of rare earths used in the United States (though many of the applications listed on pages 6-8 have many non-defense applications)
- The U.S. led in production of rare earth minerals from the 1960s to the 1980s, when production shifted to China due to “lower labor costs and lower environmental standards”
- The U.S. currently “almost entirely lacks” the capacity to process rare earth minerals.
- Rare earths companies around the world still rely mostly on production in China, Thailand, Australia, South Africa and Malaysia.
- Only one U.S. university has an educational program on rare earth minerals (Colorado School of Mines).
The report was agnostic on how far the 17 bills introduced in Congress that have at least something to do with rare earth minerals might go. The two ‘successful’ rare earth minerals items that made it into law in the previous Congress succeeded by being placed in national defense authorization bills. That might happen again this year, but I think the more important development will be what the Department of Defense does (or doesn’t do) in response to the CRS report and other reports concerning the Department’s rare earth minerals policies.