Murkowski: U.S. Made Vulnerable by Lag in Key Mineral Extraction

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When she first entered the Senate in 2002, domestic oil production was on the decline and the United States was looking beyond its borders to the oil fields of other, sometimes unfriendly, countries to fill its thirst for fossil fuels.

Fast-forward through two previous presidencies to today, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski notes that the country has moved from vulnerable reliance on others “to a position of strength and dominance.” Import centers have turned into export facilities as the United States leads the world in energy production, a development powered by new technologies and a newfound willingness to exploit existing resources. The Alaska Republican wants a repeat of the oil boom, this time with critical minerals.

“What we are doing now, with our eyes wide open, we are putting ourselves in that same vulnerable position when it comes to these necessary minerals, these rare-earths, these things we need for everything,” Murkowski said Wednesday at an event on the topic hosted by RealClearPolitics.

The resources are different, but the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee insisted the economic and national security implications are nearly identical: “We are creating that same level of vulnerability.”

“Like oil and natural gas, we have the resources. But we have to be allowed to extract it and be allowed to process it,” Murkowski argued. “We need to be pushing ourselves to be the world leader.”

The minerals in question are rare-earth elements used to manufacture components in everything from electric vehicles and smartphones to medical screening equipment and advanced weapons systems. At the direction of the Trump administration, the Department of Interior has published a list of 35 mineral commodities critical to economic and national security.

Those commodities were the subject of Wednesday’s event, which RCP hosted in partnership with the National Mining Association. And despite the critical need for them, Murkowski warned that the United States lags global competitors in their production. The most worrisome among those competitors: China.

Murkowski warned that Chinese companies have been scouring the globe, entering the developing world in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, and doing their best to corner mineral markets.

“China is, in a not-too-subtle way, working to capture this to their economic benefit,” she said, “and I believe to their national security benefit.”

It is not that the United States doesn’t have these resources available within its own borders. Instead, the three-term senator argued, it is that they remain untapped, in large part due to bureaucratic red tape. “We have the minerals. What we lack is the willingness and ability to produce this,” she said. For instance, Murkowski noted, the current regulatory process necessary to open a new mine can take up to a decade. Canada and Australia, by comparison, give the regulatory green light in as little as two to three years.

Murkowski blames the combination of regulatory uncertainty and that lengthy permitting process for making it unattractive for investors to back domestic production. Hence her support for the president’s executive order to identify rare-earth resources and her own American Mineral Security Act, which would expedite accessing them.

As the legislative calendar winds down and the impeachment inquiry gains momentum, Murkowski admitted that getting her bill through Congress this year falls in “the pretty slim category.” She left the door open, however, to passing the legislation as part of a larger spending package at the end of the year, telling the industry audience to “pay attention for that.”

However, opposition is likely from across the aisle, where Senate Democrats support the so-called Keep It in the Ground Act. Prominent among them is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who Murkowski believes has a strong chance of winning her party’s presidential nomination.

That bill, endorsed by six of the Democrats currently running for president, would ban new fossil fuel leases on public lands and in federal waters. And while coal and natural gas and oil would be hardest hit initially, Murkowski worries the sentiment underpinning the measure would ultimately extend more broadly to other extractive industries.

“It makes no sense to me,” she said before arguing that U.S. industry has shown itself capable of drilling and mining for resources in an environmentally responsible fashion. If Keep It in the Ground were to become federal policy, Murkowski fears the country would become dependent on others for rare-earth elements, just as it once was for oil.

“If we are going to take the approach that we should not be producing our own minerals in this country, it still begs the question of where are they going to come from?” she said. “And who are we going to basically go asking for those in order to accomplish our goals?”

The event, held in Washington, D.C., also included panel discussions featuring industry experts and officials in related government agencies.

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