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Biden’s mining NIMBY-ism fuels China’s critical minerals dominance

President Joe Biden speaks to the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference, Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Joe Biden prioritizes fossil fuel extraction in foreign dictatorships rather than on American shores. Unfortunately, this energy NIMBY-ism isn’t limited to the oil and gas industries. Recently released data reveals how the president’s opposition to domestic mining maintains China’s supply chain domination of the critical minerals needed for renewable energy technology.

Critical minerals are a group of 50 elements that are used in manufacturing and are necessary for American economic and national security, but that also have supply chains liable to disruption. Many of these minerals play an integral role in low-carbon technology, such as graphite in electric vehicle batteries or arsenic in solar power semiconductors. However, according to new data from the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States remains 100 percent import reliant upon 12 critical minerals, coupled with an import reliance greater than 50 percent for an additional 31 minerals.

A closer look at where these critical minerals come from details the breadth and depth of China’s mineral domination. China is the largest single producer of 30 critical minerals. Moreover, when China is the largest supplier of a critical mineral, the most recent data reveals that American import dependence is significantly higher than the average American import reliance on other minerals. In other words, China has developed a uniquely profound and strategic industrial advantage.

What’s more, Beijing’s domination of the supply chains of these scarce resources is more widespread than the initial numbers let on. Cesium and its compounds, for example, are used in novel solar power cells and high-pressure oil and gas drilling. While the latest data lists the United States as 100 percent import reliant on German cesium, the accompanying Geological Survey report notes that cesium mining is believed only to occur in China. Whether through mining or refining, Beijing’s influence over critical mineral supply chains is expansive.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with trading minerals across international borders, which can help to diversify supply chains and provide access to bountiful resources abroad. But a persistent reliance upon an increasingly bellicose autocracy for industrial energy inputs is a recipe for geopolitical vulnerability and energy fragility. President Biden understands this — he voted in favor of creating the Strategic Petroleum Reserve following the Arab Oil embargo of 1973-74 during his first term in the Senate.

And yet, the Biden administration is pursuing a policy that inhibits domestic mining and helps to maintain China’s dominance. Most visible is the administration’s salvo of cancellations and bans on mining projects. 

In January of this year, the Interior Department issued a 20-year moratorium on mining in northern Minnesota, quashing plans to tap the nation’s largest undeveloped copper and nickel deposits. The Biden administration’s Environmental Protection Agency also recently outlawed mining near the headwaters of Bristol Bay in Alaska, effectively relegating the Pebble Mine project and its huge copper resources to the slagheap of history.

Even if proposed mining projects avoid the targeted ire of the Biden cabinet, they’re now subject to paperwork purgatory due to the administration’s reinterpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The act has long served as a delay-to-deny tool for litigious opponents of mining projects. The White House now describes its NEPA regulations as “the floor, rather than the ceiling” for federal agencies’ environmental review process. This heavier regulatory burden risks replicating the multi-year court battle that has delayed efforts to mine the country’s largest known lithium deposit near Thacker Pass, Nevada.

Rather than the minerals needed to power renewable energy technologies, the refining of president Biden’s NIMBY energy policy is producing fiscal waste. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 authorized $320 million to map the presence of critical mineral resources across the United States. Unless the White House allows domestic miners to compete with foreign producers, these maps will collect dust. In the interim, when it comes to critical minerals in foreign dictatorships, it’s a case of what’s yours is mined.

Oliver McPherson-Smith is the director of Energy, Trade and Environmental Policy at the American Consumer Institute.

Tags critical minerals Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Joe Biden Mining in the United States Politics of the United States Renewable energy transition Solar power in the United States US-China relations

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