Subcommittee Members Present:
On July 20, the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing on the impacts of the helium supply shortage. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) operates a helium reserve which is no longer funded after next year in accordance with the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 (HPA) (P.L. 104-273). Private industry has not yet developed alternative sources of helium to prepare for this closure.
Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) opened the hearing by discussing the history of the Federal Helium Program (FHP). The program was started in 1925 to create the Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas after it was used in military aircraft and blimps during World War I. Today, helium is used in health equipment, LCD screens, lasers and rocket fuel. American companies that have bought helium from the reserve in the past will rely more on foreign helium from Algeria, Qatar, and Russia if the U.S. cannot develop a stable domestic supply Lamborn specifically mentioned the global shortage of Helium-3, (H3) an isotope used by defense agencies to detect smuggled nuclear weapons and other homeland security purposes. The chairman said he hopes the witnesses’ testimonies could help Congress decide on a course of action to combat the shrinking supply of helium by developing a private supply of the critical gas.
Ranking Member Rush Holt (D-NJ) discussed the HPA and repayment of the helium debt by BLM in his opening statement. He criticized Congress for ignoring this issue saying, “Members don’t understand that helium is the result of alpha decay of elements … and ends up deposited with natural gas … and needs to be separated and saved if it’s going to be used.” Holt discussed a bill he is writing with Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) to address a shortage of helium once the federal reserve is shut down. He said this issue “should not be partisan” and said he hopes for Republican help on this bill.
Tim Spisak, the Deputy Assistant Director of the Minerals and Realty Management division of BLM, outlined the goals and practices of the FHP in his testimony. He said in fiscal year 2013 (FY 2013) the program will have paid off the “helium debt” the U.S. Treasury incurred by building the helium stockpile. Spisak said the BLM paid this debt by selling helium at a reduced price to domestic users. When the HPA was passed it stopped BLM from producing any more helium and mandated it to sell the current stockpile.
He explained the BLM’s “In-Kind” program, requiring federal agencies to buy helium from private suppliers who must then buy the gas from the stockpile. Spisak summarized the 2000 National Academy of Sciences report entitled “The Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve” which concluded the “HPA-mandated sell-off is negatively impacting … current and future users of helium.”
During questioning by Lamborn, Spisak explained that a pipeline was set up from the reserve in Amarillo to processing plants in Oklahoma and Kansas. This pipeline was built by the Bureau of Mines, a federal agency which oversaw mining activity and controlled the helium stockpile until it was closed in 1995. There are only four refining plants along the pipeline, and Spisak said additional plants cannot be added because its capacity is close to being exceeded.
Holt asked if different natural gas reserves have different amounts of helium and if deposits with sufficient concentration of the critical gas are easy to find. Spisak explained that “essentially all” gas fields contain helium, but it is only “economically viable” if it is more than 0.3 percent of the deposit. He said that such deposits are being found domestically but they are small. Spisak later explained that the price of helium is kept low by BLM because it will be more costly to the government in the long run as the reserve is sold off.
Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA) asked about the “straight line extraction” requirement of HPA. It requires BLM to draw from the reserve at a steady rate and Thompson said that may not make sense as the reserve is being emptied. Spisak responded that the straight line extraction is “impossible” to maintain as the reserve ages and its pressure decreases.
Responding to Tonko, Spisak said the reserve should be paid off by the first quarter of FY 2013. When this happens however, the reserve will still contain 14 billion cubic feet of helium. BLM sells helium in packages of 100 million cubic feet, and sells about 2 billion cubic feet per year.
Representative Jeff Duncan (R-SC) expressed concern that other countries may be supplying U.S. helium needs in the future. He criticized the government for “fixing prices” and its negative effects “downstream.”
David Joyner, President of Air Liquide Helium America, testified as the head of a corporation which distributes helium “globally” to the electronics industry, health researchers, automotive suppliers, laboratories and manufacturing facilities. He explained that the Federal Helium Reserve contains “crude” helium which must be refined before use. Gas from the reserve is transported solely by the helium pipeline to six processing plants. Joyner said these plants have received “a windfall” by having the ability to control the supply of helium. He argued that allowing more refiners to have access to the reserve, supply would increase.
Joyner said the price of helium from the stockpile negatively impacts private suppliers. The BLM price of helium is “solely designed” to pay the debt to the U.S. Treasury. Because the BLM is not trying to make a profit, it can provide the gas at a much lower price than private suppliers, working against the purpose of the HPA.
Walter Nelson, Director of Helium Sourcing and Supply at Air Products and Chemicals, testified that the BLM helium reserve is “essential” to the helium market’s stability. Air Products is one of the companies that owns a helium processing plant along the pipeline. Rather than a controlled shortage as suggested by Joyner, Nelson claims the shortage is due to maintenance problems at helium production plants in Wyoming and Qatar. He points to a “shift in focus” by drilling companies toward natural gas resources with more liquid rather than dry gas which contains more helium. Nelson said natural gas fields “rarely” contain helium.
Tom Thoman, Division President of Gases Production at Airgas, cited the six-plant “monopoly” of refined helium and the reduced price at which the government can sell it at as the cause of the shortage in his testimony. He supported the NAS report recommendations that helium pricing follow a “market-based approach” and BLM broaden its distribution of crude. Thoman closed by appealing to concern for the U.S. economy saying Airgas is losing business though it supports “millions of U.S. jobs.”
Tom Rauch, Global Sourcing Manager of GE Healthcare, testified to the importance of helium in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). A helium shortage does not pose immediate danger for patients, but the magnets in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines will have to be replaced with the gas to cool it after use. He said a long-term shortage could force patients in need of medical care to travel long distances for a functioning MRI. Rauch recommended the Federal Helium Program be funded for another year or so to allow more time for helium supply privatization.
Mark Haynes, President of Concordia Power and representing the Next Generation Nuclear Power Alliance (NGNP), discussed the critical use of helium in the energy industry in his testimony. He said helium is used to cool reactions for petroleum, natural gas and coal processing and nuclear reactors including High Temperature Gas Reactions (HTGR). HTGR does not require human operation even for safety purposes and is more energy efficient than nuclear power. Haynes said many other countries, including China, have test HTGR reactors and are developing commercial reactors.
John Campbell, member of the NAS helium report committee, testified based on his experience with the helium supply. He reiterated the recommendations of former witnesses. Campbell said the BLM can offer much lower prices than private suppliers because it is just repaying the U.S. Treasury. He said that because helium comes from natural gas fields, the two resources are “inexorably linked.” While natural gas production is inconsistent the helium supply cannot be stabilized, according to Campbell.
N. Phuan Ong, physics professor at Princeton University and Director of the Princeton Center for Complex Materials, discussed the use of helium in his and related research in his testimony. Quantum properties of materials and magnetic research require helium to cool materials and superconductive magnets, respectively. Ong said this research can impact the fields of quantum computing, MRI, superconductor chips in electronics and graphene- a single sheet of carbon atoms with unique conductive properties. Academic research requires less helium than industry, but is still negatively impacted by the supply shortage.
In response to Lamborn’s questions, Nelson summarized the recommendations of the NAS report. He recommended extending the life of the helium reserve until it is sold off. He said Congress should broaden the Federal Helium Users Program which currently supplies research and defense applications and allow more organizations to buy helium directly from the BLM rather than private suppliers as directed by the In-Kind Program.
Holt asked if the helium shortage was based on geological or economic limitations. Campbell explained that Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Iraq, Russia and Algeria contain significant helium reserves capable of being economically mined. He said the shortage issue is more a result of relying on BLM as the “flywheel” or constant source of helium for “day to day” use. Now that the reserve is in the process of closing, Campbell said there will be economic instability before a new main source is established.
Ong and Nelson told Holt that the use of helium in academic research is between five and 10 percent. Holt was attempting to understand the “appropriate use and pricing” of a critical resource owned by the taxpayer, suggesting that research is a more important use of helium. Thompson asked how helium pricing affects research. Ong explained that to compete with research groups from Japan or Germany, his lab must spend an “absurd” $50,000 on helium. He said he usually receives $100,000 from National Science Foundation (NSF) grants.
Tonko asked if the government should maintain a “strategic” helium reserve for defense and emergency use. Campbell and Nelson supported this idea, considering the many uses the critical gas has for defense. Ong said that because helium is “one of the most important elements and the easiest to use” it must be recycled and saved. Especially because the U.S. has such significant deposits, Ong believes not having a strategic reserve would be “wasteful.”
Opening statements, witness testimonies and a web cast of this hearing can be found on the committee’s web site.
Subcommittee Members Present
Full Committee Members Present
On December 7, 2011, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing to receive testimony on research needs and priorities relating to energy critical elements (ECE) and examine The Energy Critical Elements Advancement Act of 2011 (H.R. 2090). H.R. 2090 was introduced by Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL) on June 2 and directs the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy (DOE) to improve ECE resource assessments through direct coordination. The bill also designates the U.S. Geological Survey as the Principal Statistical Agency to gather ECE resource information. H.R. 2090 authorizes a DOE research program requires the Office of Science and Technology and Policy to produce a report for Congress on recycling of energy critical elements.
According to the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society (MRS), who together published an Energy Critical Elements report, ECEs encompass rare earth elements, the platinum group elements in the center of the periodic table including platinum and iridium, and some other photovoltaic elements including tellurium, gallium, and germanium. Representative Brad Miller has sponsored H.R. 952, the Energy Critical Elements Renewal Act of 2011 which establishes in the Department of Energy (DOE) a research, development, and commercial application program dedicated to assuring the long-term, secure, and sustainable supply of energy critical elements in the U.S.
Chairman Andy Harris opened the hearing by introducing the burgeoning global demand for rare earth elements “amidst a volatile market,” in which China produces 97 percent of the global supply. He listed the need for ECEs for high performance magnets, photovoltaic solar cells, fuel cells, next generation batteries, electronics, and defense purposes. He spoke of the negative results of China’s stronghold on the rare earth market while suggesting that the private sector is responding effectively to the monopoly, and urged the federal government to aid in rebalancing the market. Harris expressed his support of Hultgren’s ECE bill. Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) spoke further about China’s intentions to manipulate the ECE market, and stressed the need to “keep watch” on these elements and to foresee future problems. He urged the House to move forward on his bill, H.R. 952, in time for Senate action to be taken on this issue.
David Sandalow of DOE told the committee that his agency has deemed solar photovoltaic cells, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and fluorescent lighting at risk of supply disruptions in the next five years. Sandalow listed DOE’s three pillar-strategy to increase the U.S. domestic market of ECEs: development of substitute elements, an increase in the use of recycled electronics, and the creation of a diversified global supply chain. According to Molycorp, Inc. of Mountain Pass Mine in southern California, the mine will have a production capacity of 19,000 tons of rare earths by the end of 2012 and 40,000 tons by early 2014, which Sandalow said is “an important step in the right direction.” He mentioned the administration is currently evaluating H.R. 2090 but has no specific comments yet.
Derek Scissors of the Heritage Foundation said that he agreed and disagreed with comments from Representative Miller’s opening statement, and announced that he would speak in response to Miller rather than reading from his written testimony. While he agreed with Miller that the Chinese are a predatory presence in the critical materials market, he also believed that the Chinese market power is temporary. Scissors corrected Harris, saying that China actually only monopolizes 90 percent of the market, as production is slowly branching out into other countries. He added that Chinese “holding” amounts of critical materials are lower than their production rates, thus their domestic market is not sustainable. Scissors warned that government intervention in the market, in the form of loan guarantees, is a “terrible idea.” He asked, “What should the government do, then?” and listed supporting basic research, providing information in a rapidly changing market, creating a long term process for ECE production, and possibly opening federal land to ECE exploration.
Robert Jaffe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believes that the U.S. is not going to run out of any ECEs in the near future, but if appropriate steps are not taken, the country will face disruptive short-term constraints on the supply of “potentially game-changing energy technologies.” Jaffe listed three approaches that MIT has recommended for the U.S.: the government should gather and disseminate all information about the availability of ECEs, the government should promote fundamental research aimed at increasing supplies and decreasing dependence on foreign ECEs, and the country needs more recycling efforts for used electronics.
Karl Gschneidner of Ames National Laboratory told the committee that both the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) at DOE do research through Ames Laboratory on these issues, and he described a few current initiatives. He expressed the imperativeness to educate and train the next generation of engineers.
Luka Erceg of Simbol Materials stated that ECEs are the “backbone to US innovation.” He told the committee that Simbol Materials is commercializing sustainable production of lithium, manganese, and zinc. Erceg mentioned that manganese has not been listed as an important element in the proposed legislation, even though the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and Department of Commerce (DOC) have both expressed how critical manganese is. He believes the U.S. needs clearer definitions and policies about ECEs, a domestic supply chain for those critical materials, and federal support for research and development (R&D) of ECEs.
During the question and answer period, Harris asked Sandalow how the government would be best positioned with regards to rare earths. Sandalow emphasized the need for government support for research, without discerning between basic and applied, and enhanced agency coordination. Erceg agreed with the need for more coordinated agency action. He added that this is a great opportunity to put agency coordination in law, as he sees more similarities than differences in the proposed legislation. Miller asked is there is a useful distinction between basic and applied research. Jaffe responded that time scale is the discerning factor, since private enterprise shies away from making investments on long time scales. Scissors argued that the concept of basic versus applied research is a market view, not a true science perspective.
Judy Biggert (R-IL) asked the panel to characterize the importance of critical elements related to batteries. Sandalow told the congresswoman that battery materials like lithium are critically important to reduce the nation’s dependence on oil. Erceg added that the nation is not running out of these materials; rather, the U.S. lacks a highly trained workforce to produce and process the materials. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) asked Erceg about DOE’s other work in California. Erceg replied that DOE has given $3 million to geothermal research in California.
Rohrabacher told the panel that the “regulatory” nature of the government cannot impede the nation’s ECE production. Erceg said that he “respects regulations” because it has shown to foster more innovation, create more sustainable lithium production and a competition with the lowest-cost producers. Scissors noted that there is a benefit to opening up federal lands for development.
Paul Tonko (D-NY) asked if DOE’s efforts are linked with a broader strategy to encourage domestic manufacturing, to which Sandalow replied in the positive. Tonko inquired about electronic waste processes, and Jaffe told the congressman that the U.S. needs future research for materials currently lacking recycling programs, which would be a “great investment in the longest term.” Randy Hultgren asked Scissors his opinion on the three key points from the DOE strategy. Scissors noted that they are all good options, and material substitution and global supply chain diversification are already underway. He stressed the importance of government role in recycling efforts. Erceg explained that the three prongs of the DOE approach all fuel each other in a circle, and he believes they will work well together.
During a second round of questioning, Harris expressed his desire to prevent “another Solyndra” occurrence, in which a now bankrupt solar company received a $535 million loan guarantee, and asked how the government can prevent it. Scissors told the congressman that the government should not involve particular companies, because it sets up a “giant target” for competitors to destroy. Multiple companies and multiple technologies, Scissors believes, are the best route for government support.
Tonko opened up discussion on DOE methods, to which Sandalow mentioned that DOE looks to multiple technologies when responding to particular needs. Scissors told the committee that this market is very sensitive to vulnerabilities, but Erceg argued that it suffers from a lack of transparency.
Full witness testimonies, the majority opening statement, and a hearing webcast can be found on the committee web site.
Subcommittee Members Present
On November 4, 2011, the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held an oversight hearing to discuss the Obama Administration’s efforts to replace the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule (SBZ) with a new Stream Protection Rule (SPR) and their ensuing effects on local jobs and the environment. The committee took the opportunity to discuss Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s decision to incorporate the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) into the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This hearing follows the September 26 field hearing that discussed the impacts of the SBZ rewrite on local West Virginia communities.
Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) opened the hearing stating that he is “deeply concerned” about the potential impact that the SBZ rewrite will have on coal mining jobs and on the nation’s access to coal resources. Providing a quotation from former Wyoming Governor Dave Freundenthal, Lamborn argued that the current process to rewrite the SBZ does not provide states “meaningful opportunity to comment and participate.” Regarding the placement of OSM within BLM, he mentioned that there are “clear statutory limitations” prohibiting OSM from leasing or promoting coal production, both of which are responsibilities of BLM.
Ranking Member Rush Holt (D-NJ) said in his opening statement that over two thousand miles of Appalachian streams have been filled with rocks and debris from mountaintop removal, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As such, Holt stressed waters and streams need to be protected for the local people in nearby communities. Holt told the committee that Polu Kai Services (PKS), the contractor charged with preparing an environmental assessment of the SPR did not have any expertise on the topic, and he “hopes that the majority doesn’t use inadequate documents.” In his opinion, the current rule does not protect stream and water quality, and the central issue of this hearing should be the protection of the environment and the people living in affected areas.
Full Committee Ranking Member Ed Markey (D-MA) said, “Mountaintop removal is one of the most environmentally destructive activities.” He told the committee that the SBZ was a “midnight rule” enacted by the Bush Administration to increase coal production, thus OSM needs to improve the rule to take the environment and public health into consideration.
Joseph Pizarchik, Director of OSM, said in his testimony that the 2008 SBZ Rule is being revised because “they are areas that should be improved,” including enhancing land reclamation and regulatory provisions, and reducing the impact of coal mining on water and aquatic ecosystems. Pizarchik noted that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) from OSM will look at a range of alternatives and their individual economic impacts. The proposed rule and associated draft EIS, both open for public, state, and federal input, will be published in 2012.
During the question and answer period, Lamborn told Pizarchik that OSM has not explicitly explained the environmental impacts that have prompted the SPR. Pizarchik said, “If you look at what is happening in the field, there are a number of cases that weren’t considered” when the 2008 SBZ rule was established. He gave examples such as fish depletion in streams due to high total dissolved solids (TDS), selenium bioaccumulation in fish populations, and the “shoot and shove” process which allows excess rocks and debris to be released downslope causing blockage in streams. He later added that valley fill regulations and geomorphic land reclamation techniques need to be updated, the reforestation and “material damage” statutes need more detailed definitions, and baseline data regulations need to be enforced. Lamborn told Pizarchik that this list of cases was not mentioned in OSM’s federal register notice announcing the SPR. Lamborn expressed concern that OSM is not examining a full range of options, including a “no-action” option. Pizarchik said that each option is being considered under the National Environmental Policy Act regulations.
Bill Johnson (R-OH) asked Pizarchik to respond to claims that the SPR has been created at a “world-record pace.” While it has been moving along “in a timely fashion,” Pizarchik assured the congressman that the process has had more public involvement and comment than the 2008 rule received. When asked about what prompted the new SPR, Pizarchik referred to an environmental lawsuit that caused OSM to consider making amendments to the current SBZ.
Lamborn expressed concern about job losses as a result of the SPR and asked Pizarchik if the EIS will examine economic and job consequences. Pizarchik said he is “not an expert on the economics,” but he can assure the new contractor will give full attention to all possible outcomes. According to Pizarchik the SPR will not reduce the number of jobs, as more people will be needed to take water quality samples and transport rock and debris out of the valleys. Ranking Member Holt asked if OSM should give weight to the results that PKS reported in its assessment, given that their report was deemed “inaccurate and incomplete... and insufficient for a document of this importance” by OSM. Pizarchik said that the findings from PKS will not be used and another contractor is performing a new assessment. In response, Johnson asked how OSM knew that the report supplied by PKS was insufficient. Pizarchik said that “everybody can agree” that PKS used placeholder numbers plugged into a formula that produced arbitrary values.
Ranking Member Holt expressed concerns that OSM will lose experts during its incorporation into BLM. Pizarchik replied that some efficiencies will actually be gained during the reorganization. He quoted Interior Secretary Salazar, saying “OSM is an independent entity” and will be able to maintain its authority once incorporated into BLM. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) asked if OSM could avoid reorganization by using its resources more efficiently. Pizarchik said insufficient agency support and staff cuts forced OSM to seek outside assistance with its oversight and technical support functions. Bill Flores (R-TX) noted to combine leasing and regulatory responsibilities for the coal industry is contrary to the administration’s recent decision to split these jurisdictions into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) for the offshore drilling industry. Flores and Johnson insisted the Department of the Interior has no statutory authority to merge the two agencies, but Pizarchik said the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (P.L. 95-87) only prohibits OSM to collaborate with an agency that has a financial interest in coal production. He assured Johnson the statutory provisions in the SBZ will be looked at without seeking legislative amendments, and OSM will be receiving congressional input on the SPR.
The hearing webcast, majority opening statement, and witness testimony can be found on the committee web site.
Subcommittee members present
On July 14, 2011 the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing to discuss current federal and state programs addressing abandoned mine lands and possible innovative solutions to improve such programs. The hearing addressed specific cleanup sites as well as abandoned mined lands as a whole.
Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-CO), gave an opening statement in which he stated his desire for innovative ways to restore the environment and improve safety while creating new jobs. He referenced a previous hearing in which the witness, Laura Skaer of Northwest Mining Association, gave a recommendation for a Good Samaritan provision to help remediation of abandoned hardrock mines. Voluntary or Good Samaritan, cleanup refers to efforts on behalf of volunteers, independent organizations, and even industry to aid in remediation. Lamborn has supported such efforts before when he introduced the “Good Samaritan” Cleanup of Inactive Mines Act (HR 3203) in the 111 Congress. Ranking Member Holt described the challenges of remediation, citing an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate that 40 percent of stream headwaters have been affected by abandoned hardrock mines. Although he was looking forward to hearing about Good Samaritan cleanup efforts, he warned against letting remediation be an excuse for allowing construction of new mines.
As the first witness, Joe Heck (R-NV) spoke of his bill, the Three Kids Mine Remediation and Reclamation Act (H.R. 2512), which was referred to the subcommittee on July 14. Under the Act, the contaminated federal lands of the Three Kids Mine would be conveyed to the Henderson Redevelopment Agency, a third party between the state and federal government, at fair market value for reclamation. In exchange, the federal government would be released of its liability with the entire site. Funding for the cleanup would come from private capital and a proposed Nevada Community Redevelopment Law, an incremental property tax collected over a 30 year period; the cleanup would not include federal funding.
Marcilynn Burke spoke about the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) abandoned mine lands (AML) program, stating it “is one of the agency’s most challenging due to the sheer number of AML sites, their associated safety and environmental hazards, and the complexity of remediating them.” The BLM estimates it contains 31,000 AMLs on its property. She described the nature of the problems found on these sites; “Each year there are tragic and potentially preventable stories about the loss of life, such as a devastating fall into an open shaft of an abandoned mine” She cited a story of a geothermal company worker who fell to his death while exploring an abandoned site on his day off. Burke affirmed the BLM is making efforts to improve its strategy of mitigating hazards, but is confident the AML program will continue to succeed.
Joel Holtrop testified on the National Forest Service’s (NFS) AML program. He spoke of physical hazards and health contaminants as the two principal categories of problems facing AML reclamation. He explained cleanups ranged in size and cost, varying from hundreds of thousands to many millions of dollars. Estimates on the number of AML sites on NFS land are given by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and range from 27,000 to 39,000 abandoned mines. However, “regardless of the exact number, the scope AML cleanup on land managed by the Forest Service is large and could consume an estimated $4 to $6 billion,” Holtrop said.
Anu Mattil stated one of the biggest challenges in AML remediation is the lack of information. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) created a standard AML criterion for their report. From that criterion they identified 161,000 AMLs in 12 western states and Alaska. Of those, 33,000 have degraded the environment. Mattil’s testimony focused on the scope of the problem and urged the chairman that while innovative approaches are needed, it is important to better understand the magnitude of the problem. Loretta Pineda gave the committee three recommendations for AML cleanup: consistent funding, a strong state lead for implementation of remediation programs, and a Good Samaritan Provision. She emphasized that for every dollar spent by local government on construction, $2.70 is spent in the local economy. Currently, Good Samaritans incur Clean Water Act liability when they begin cleanup efforts on the quality of the discharge “even though they did not create the discharge and even if their cleanup efforts improved the overall quality of the discharge.”
Laura Skaer stated the AML problem is a finite one created by historic practices within the mining industry and government. Therefore, she argued it is a problem that will not grow in the future. She warned that historic processes should not prevent future building of hardrock mines because doing so “is the equivalent of showing a picture of a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and stating that it does not have seat belts, air bags, pollution control devices or meet CAFE requirements and therefore GM should not be allowed to produce new cars in 2011.” Skaer also supports a Good Samaritan provision that would allow non-federal entities to help in remediation. “Effective Good Samaritan legislation makes sense and can be a win-win-win-win for the environment, for the Good Samaritan, for the community, and for the Nation.”
Lauren Pagel agreed with Pineda, stating the lack of a steady stream of funding is the largest challenge in the reclamation process. Pagel expressed support for hardrock mining companies to pay royalty fees. Additionally, she mentioned the Obama Administration’s efforts to enact a reclamation fee of 1%, which would give $200 million for AML restoration and create 13,000 jobs per year in the mining industry. She also supports the implementation of a Good Samaritan provision.
During questioning, both Burke and Pineda gave estimates that 20 percent of AML sites pose environmental threats, while the other 80 percent represent more physical safety hazards. Skaer was also able to shed light on the role past wars have had on hardrock mining waste. For example, during World War II, the federal government pushed for maximum mining and showed little concern for the waste. The chairman asked witnesses to share some of the costs or benefits they foresee should a Good Samaritan provision be implemented. Witnesses agreed they would see greater participation from independent groups and from industry. Holtrop agreed that because of the magnitude of the problem it would be beneficial to use all tools and people available, but that government oversight would help in preventing unintended consequences.
The chairman’s opening statement, witness testimonies, and an archived webcast are found here.
Subcommittee Members Present
Full Committee Members Present
Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT) introduced his bill, The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, (H.R. 1505) on April 13, 2011 to prohibit the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from using environmental regulations that would prevent the U.S. Border Patrol from securing the U.S. border on federal lands. On February 9, 2011, Ranking Member Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced the Public Lands Service Corps Act of 2011 (H.R. 587) to amend the Public Lands Corps Act of 1993 (16 USC 1721-1729) in authorizing the Department of Commerce, USDA, and DOI to promote the value of public service to America’s youth while restoring the nation's resources. These two bills were reviewed by the subcommittee on July 8, 2011
Bishop provided in his opening statement a review of the bills at hand and proceeded to elaborate on both bills. In regards to H.R. 587, he stated that the opportunity to provide jobs and employ people to work on public lands is a “concept that makes sense.” He also commented on H.R. 1505 stating that border security is the first priority in protecting the nation’s public lands and emphasized that the environment is not being harmed by the border patrol.
Grijalva provided an overview of H.R. 587 in his opening statement. He added that his bill is a job training bill which boosts environmental protection. Grijalva disapproved of H.R. 1505 saying that this bill is seeking to “tear [H.R. 587] down.” He said that the Government Accountability Office, DOI, USDA, and Border Patrol all testified, in April 2011, that federal environmental laws and regulations are not inhibiting border security.
In Jim Pena’s testimony, he reiterated his support of H.R. 587. He said this was a “welcome[d] amendment to the Public Lands Corps Act of 1993.” He told the committee this bill would not only strengthen the Public Lands Corps (PLC) program but would also engage youth in educational and employment opportunities. Although praised, the USDA would like some amendments added to the bill regarding hiring preferences, cost sharing with non-profit organizations, living allowance differences, and agreements with partners on training Corps Members. In regards to H.R. 1505, Pena stated the USDA’s opposition to the legislation. Although it is recognized that there are security and law enforcement issues along the border, the USDA feels that “H.R. 1505 would waive the requirement for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to comply with the National Environment Policy Act of 1969, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and some two dozen other environmental laws.” The DHS would be able to build roads, fences, and other equipment without consulting other federal agencies within one hundred miles of the International border. Pena added that the legislation is not needed due to the Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) signed in 2006 and 2008.
In her testimony, Kim Thorsen expressed DOI’s approval of H.R. 587. While Thorsen agreed with Bishop that the border needs to be secure while also protecting the natural resource, she opposed H.R. 1505. She told Bishop the bill has the ability to instill unintended damage to the natural and cultural resources because of the lack of consultation with local, state, and federal governments and local residents. Without public review or notices of intended border security activities on federal land, she said the safety of visitors and agency law enforcement may be compromised.
Dale Penny approved H.R. 587 in his testimony. He emphasized that this bill is “needed more now than ever.” He said this bill would expand the opportunities for 16-24 year olds in maintaining public lands especially when unemployment for this age bracket is 19.1 percent.
In Gary Thrasher’s testimony, he stated his approval of H.R. 1505. He emphasized the importance of this legislation saying this bill is needed to protect the “sovereignty and security” of the border and to protect national security. He commented that smugglers are becoming more violent in their determination to protect contraband and control their trails to and from Mexico. This is driving residents away from their homes and businesses. Claude Guyant approved of H.R. 1505 saying that this bill has provided leadership to change the conflict between environmental concerns and national security by putting national security first. John Leshy opposed H.R. 1505 saying that this bill goes “way beyond what is necessary and proper, in our constitutional system, to enforce immigration laws.” This bill would immunize the DHS from liability in restoration of federal lands and DHS would be given the power to make decisions without review from other agencies and the public.
Written testimonies from the witnesses, a documented webcast, and other information can be found here.
Committee Members Present
The House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forest, and Public Lands held a hearing on June 22, 2011 regarding access to federal lands for recreational use and the potential economic benefits of recreational activities on federal lands.
Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) said in his opening statement that the pattern of outdoor recreation is always going to be changing. He commented that in today’s economy the majority of U.S. citizens are taking day trips instead of long week trips. Although more day trips are being taken, he pointed out there is still a high demand for outdoor recreation. Bishop stated that there are differences in opinions on how the public wishes to use these public lands, and while some conflicts are unavoidable between the fisherman and the kayaker, Bishop believes that “there is plenty of room for everyone.”
John Garamendi (D-CA) sat in as Ranking Member for Raúl Grijalva. Garamendi reiterated that there is “plenty of room for all of us” in our vast expanse of natural resources within the U.S. Bishop then joked that “maybe 100 pounds ago there was room for all of us.”
Rush Ehnes began his testimony with an extensive history of closures of off-highway vehicle (OHV) paths in the state of Montana due to the grizzly bear being put on the endangered species list and travel planning management. These closures have had great impacts on the public specifically resulting in an incomplete system of trails that do not connect to one another causing a reduction in OHV opportunities. Ehnes stated that if there is effective planning for individuals of all interests, this can result in an effective balance that could be achieved for all individuals enjoying the nation’s natural resources. Scott Jones’s testimony revealed the positive economic impacts OHV recreationalists have on local and region areas. In 2010, over $33 billion was spent on outdoor recreation equipment. Many of these motorized users require trucks and trailers to move their equipment, these users are staying in hotels, and buying their food from the local areas resulting in positive income for small towns that would ultimately disappear without recreational opportunities. Jones stated that the paid annual registration program in Colorado developed by motorized recreational users have provided funding to the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to improve and maintain public lands. In Dick Leply’s testimony, he stated the positive impacts that OHV recreation has on the economy. He explained that OHV opportunities provide jobs, help stimulate economies of local communities, and contribute to public land enjoyment. Agreeing with Leply’s testimony was Karen Umphress who indicated the importance of OHVs to the state of Minnesota in her testimony. She stated that OHVs are used for assistance on the farm and accessing hunting and fishing traps. In his testimony, Jim Akenson agreed that OHV is a source of positive income but cautioned that once the backcountry is gone it is tough to get it back. He was in support of a “clean outdoors” and said a single visit to an area can shape the character of a child as well as change their lives forever when there is no disturbing noise from motorized vehicles.
Tom McClintock (R-CA) started the questioning period by asking Ehnes if the public is being excluded from public lands in Montana. Ehnes agreed and believes that the 2005 Forest Service Travel Management rule did not have the “right amount of thinking put into closing OHV trails.” McClintock asked if others have heard similar complaints to the travel management rule. After Ehnes, Jones, and Leply said that they had, McClintock followed up stating that the Forest Service needs to remember that they are “public servants not public masters.”
Garamendi was focused on the Forest Service budget for OHV paths stating that there have been significant budget cuts and he thinks that the Forest Service shut down the trails because the federal government does not have the resources to maintain these trails. Ehnes replied that there are local solutions available to maintain these trails such as volunteers. Garamendi questioned whether the public would be interested if a fee system was put in place to assist in designing, locating, and maintaining these trails. Ehnes concluded that if the trails are maintained and the public is assured that the money does go back into the trails, a fee system should work.
Raúl Labrador (R-ID) asked everyone on the panel if the travel management rule has limited the use of OHV in unreasonable ways. Ehnes answered that the rule has had an impact on OHV users and the rule has challenged the community in providing trails. Akenson believes that the Forest Service’s issue is the lack of enforcement. Enforcement needs to take place in order to maintain the beauty of these public lands, he said. Jones, Leply, and Umphress stated that they have been working with the Forest Service and believe that working together is the best approach to take in opening and designing trail systems.
In the second panel of witnesses, Don Amador’s testimony brought the committee’s attention to the closure of Bureau of Land Management lands at Clear Creek Management Area (CCMA) due to naturally occurring asbestos. This area has not had any cases of any human harm in reference to asbestos, and he would like Congress to reopen and designate this area as a National Recreation Area. Tom Crimmins stated support for H.R. 1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011. This would “reduce restrictive management practices and direct that these areas be managed for multiple uses, including recreation.” He believes this bill will assist the Forest Service in inventorying existing wilderness areas and determining the criteria for setting aside new wilderness areas. Sutton Bacon’s testimony agreed with the first panel’s statement that OHV brings positive economic impact to areas and concluded that if outdoor recreation areas are maintained, jobs will not go away.
In the question and answer period, Bishop asked what would happen if Congress did not pass H.R. 1581. Crimmins answered that the BLM would be back in the “paralysis analysis” where the BLM manages around the lands that are not suitable for wilderness designation because it is “too much conflict.” Many questions were about the closure of CCMA and whether Amador has spoken with other members to achieve bipartisan support to re-open the area. Amador had spoken with other members and strongly believes that the reason why CCMA is closed is due to a political agenda driven by the Environmental Protection Agency. Garamendi stated that all concerns regarding outdoor recreation are difficult to address without the appropriate funding available.
Written testimonies from the witnesses, a documented webcast, and other information can be found here.
Subcommittee Members Present
The Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing on June 14, 2011 to assess the perspectives of federal organizations on critical mineral supplies. Critical minerals have come to the attention of Congress and the administration because of concerns about economic and national security implications of a China-dominated market. Critical minerals are defined by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) based on their importance to production of goods and the availability of their supply. Many rare earth elements are critical minerals.
Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL), acting as Chairman, began the hearing with an opening statement emphasizing the importance of critical minerals and the ways that his bill, the Energy Critical Elements Advancement Act of 2011 (H.R. 2090), would effectively address research, development, extraction and processing of rare earth elements and other critical elements in the U.S. and abroad. He stated that the government should do basic research on the sources and locations of critical minerals while leaving more applied research regarding exploration, extraction and processing to the private sector. Subcommittee Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) explained in her opening statement that the government needs to create ongoing policies that address shortages and account for the fact that the importance of specific minerals is erratic. She focused on the role of China, which has adjusted export quotas in order to encourage critical mineral companies to move there. She explained that China has the ability to “flood the market” at any time in order to decrease prices and keep mining operations in other countries from establishing competitive markets. For these reasons, she concluded the market alone cannot solve the critical minerals issue and government intervention is necessary.
John Holdren explained the critical minerals supply-demand dilemma and offered some solutions in his testimony. He noted that the current concentrated production of critical minerals in China is not a reflection of geographic distribution of resources. China has one third to one half of known reserves yet produces 95% of the world’s rare earth elements. The small market size of critical minerals does not reflect their larger potential to disrupt economies. Although critical minerals comprise only .001% of the United States gross domestic product (GDP), disruption in their supply could be devastating due to their central role in the manufacture of products that our nation’s economy and security depends on. Holdren suggested that in the short term critical minerals supply should be addressed through trade relations and diplomacy while investments in industry can solve the problem of domestic production in the long term. David Sandalow of the Department of Energy (DOE) focused his testimony on the importance of critical minerals for clean energy technology. He emphasized that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (H.R. 1) marked the largest investment in clean energy in history and noted that other countries are following suit. He outlined what DOE sees as the three most important aspects of critical mineral legislation—the creation of substitutes, more efficient use and reuse practices, and diversified global supply chains. Jeff Doebrich outlined the duties of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in critical minerals resources. The USGS, he emphasized, is ready and willing to fill its role in the process and has already compiled an assessment of critical minerals in the U.S.
Hultgren began the question and answer period by asking Holdren if the interagency working group created by the Obama administration to address critical minerals development will produce any deliverable results. Holdren responded that the group has already produced studies, engaged with industry, and met with foreign ministers. He added that the bills that have been introduced in Congress have a lot that the Obama administration supports such as recycling, more research, and more extensive assessments. Holdren said that he would like to see clauses added to the bill addressing trade negotiations and efforts to “make clear that it’s actually not in China’s interest to restrict trade.”
Representatives Dan Benishek (R-MI) and Sandy Adams (R-FL) heatedly interrogated Holdren on how he expected to convince China of this. Holdren responded that China cannot continue to control the industry simply by driving out competition through increasing exports. With proper resources and legislation the United States has the ability to “out-innovate” China. Benishek asked how the U.S. would be able to do this when the permitting process for mineral development takes 7 to 10 years. Holdren responded that he was unsure of the permitting process, but cited Senator Jeff Bingaman’s (D-NM) statement at an earlier hearing that the problem with mineral development is profitability and not permitting. Adams asked Holdren, “If you’re not sure on all the issues how can you say that China won’t keep doing this?” Holdren responded that he was not claiming to have a “clear crystal ball” but believed that the United States has the resources to compete with China.
Hultgren asked Holdren why the Department of Defense (DOD) has stated that there is no rare earth minerals crisis. Holdren responded that the quantities of rare earth minerals required by the DOD are small compared to commercial production needs. Holdren reiterated that the value added of critical minerals is much larger than their percentage of GDP. He emphasized their particular importance in developing clean energy technology. He gave examples of critical minerals with no substitutes such as europium in liquid crystal display (LCD) screens and erbium in fiber optic equipment. Hultgren then inquired if Holdren felt that stockpiling would be effective in addressing the issue. Holdren responded that he would be wary of doing this as stockpiles have a “checkered history” and can lead to taxpayer money being used to increase prices which drive out industry.
Edwards directed her questions at how a long term solution for addressing critical minerals in the federal government can be created. Holdren responded that he did not feel that the current situation of China dominating the market was due to U.S. policies but rather due to an economic shift. Sandalow added that investment in research and development, use and reuse efficiency, and establishing a domestic supply are the most important issues for policymakers to focus on.
Representative Brad Miller (D-NC) asked what the advantages of a DOE hub for critical minerals research would be. Sandalow explained that it would bring minds from various disciplines together and create “synergies and complementarities.” Sandalow added, however, that currently the U.S. is very deficient in people with specialized knowledge on critical minerals. Holdren noted that financial support is essential for training scientists and engineers in critical mineral specialities. He added that the current USGS budget makes it a major stretch to promote geoscience education. Hultgren asked how, if such a hub were created, it could be ensured that students with industrial mineral knowledge would be retained in the U.S. Sandalow responded that the best way to do this is through research and development support. Holdren said that the government should make it easier for foreign students with mineral expertise to stay here.
Full text of witness testimonies and an archived webcast can be accessed from the subcommittee hearing summary page.
Subcommittee Members Present
Full Committee Members Present
Critical minerals legislation continues to gain momentum in Congress. On June 9, 2011, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing to discuss three different critical minerals bills.
Subcommittee Chairman Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) began the hearing by emphasizing that energy policy has historically received significant attention while minerals have been largely ignored. Cantwell added that rare earths are not the only minerals of concern, as lithium, platinum, and palladium are also critical. She noted that the United States has fallen far behind in the global economy with regards to critical mineral supply and demand. The nation’s mineral industry fails to reflect the nation’s “innovative spirit of free market enterprise.” Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) followed with an opening statement highlighting how her bill, The Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2011 (S. 1113), would address critical mineral resource development, particularly emphasizing that it would accelerate permitting for mining activities. She explained that the United States ranks last in the amount of time needed to approve permits for mining. Murkowski noted that it is important to regulate but that delays due to bureaucracy are unacceptable.
Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) was the first witness to testify and discussed her bill aimed at lithium development, Powering America’s Lithium Production Act (S.421). Hagan stated that lithium, as a main component of batteries, is critical for clean energy products such as electric vehicles. Investments in lithium development would enhance energy security and make the United States a global leader in clean energy technology. She explained that rapidly climbing gas prices reflect a failure of national energy security and that the same mistake should not be repeated with critical minerals. Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), who supports his own critical minerals legislation, The Critical Minerals and Materials Promotion Act of 2011 (S. 383), commended Murkowski for putting portions of his bill into hers. He added that he had some concerns about her proposed legislation but emphasized that he “ [looks] forward to working with my friend from Alaska.”
David Sandalow of the Department of Energy (DOE) began his testimony by stressing that the market for clean energy is growing rapidly around the world, citing examples of clean energy development in China, India and Europe. Last year, DOE issued a request for information from private industries about which critical minerals are most important to manufacture of their products. From these responses, the DOE designated five rare earth elements as the most critical in terms of cost and supply issues. Sandalow outlined recommendations for how legislation can address critical mineral development comprehensively and efficiently. Marcilynn Burke of the Department of the Interior (DOI) discussed DOI’s perspective on Udall’s and Murkowski’s bills. Burke stressed that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) activity called for in both bills is already in the scope of her organization and that assessments on rare earth element sources in the U.S. have already been carried out. She raised concerns that Murkowski’s bill did not provide ample time to carry out the requested assessments and cautioned against expediting permitting.
Cantwell began the question and answer period by asking Sandalow if it would be possible to find substitutes for critical minerals in various products. He responded that substitutes are quite feasible and that the government should facilitate basic research and development in this area. Cantwell noted that none of the legislation presented had provisions addressing substitutes. She noted that the government receives royalties for fossil fuel extraction but not for minerals, under the Mining Law of 1872 (30 USC 29), and questioned if this legislation should be overturned.
Murkowski asked the witnesses on the government panel to commit to working together to provide specific suggestions to Congress on how the permitting process can be made more efficient. She added that mining corporations must receive permits from at least 30 organizations, a process she thinks should be consolidated. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) dismissed Murkowski’s concerns about the permitting process stating that he did not see permitting as the core problem. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) inquired further about the alleged 7 to 10 years required to process a permit, a time period that has been cited frequently by proponents of a faster permitting system, including Murkowski. Burke noted that that time period includes discovery and exploration. Franken replied that this seemed misleading, adding curtly that, “The permitting process would be the time in which you process a permit.”
Bingaman concluded that it has not been profitable for U.S. companies to produce these minerals due to China’s control of the industry. He expressed concerns that China is bringing its rare earth industry under consolidated government control making it easier to gain a monopoly on the market. Bingaman added that it is necessary to ensure that a reasonable price for U.S. produced minerals in the global market is maintained. Finding substitutes and decreasing use, he concluded, should be the main goals of critical mineral legislation.
Jonathan Price, the state geologist of Nevada, began the second panel session by providing specific recommendations on the bills. He cited a 2008 National Academy of Sciences report which recommended that the USGS be given more authority regarding critical mineral development and suggested that this be added to legislation. Price suggested that the bills should cover a broader research spectrum and address the importance of utilizing information from state geological surveys, which often have useful data. He concluded that the funding provided in Murkowski’s bill was too low to accomplish the outlined tasks. Luka Erceq of Simbol Materials highlighted the importance of federal financial support for driving private investment in critical minerals in his testimony. Steven Duclos of GE provided several recommendations for how the government can help the critical minerals industry including improving recycling, decreasing waste in production, and developing technology that eliminates the need for critical minerals. Mark Caffarey of Umicore focused his testimony on recycling.
Cantwell inquired about the obstacles to critical minerals recycling. Caffarey noted that currently the biggest weakness in the process is the collection of recyclable materials. Cantwell added that there is presently no business model that has been implemented to provide incentives for recycling. She inquired if the issues of efficiency, new materials research and recycling are something that the private sector can handle on its own. Duclos responded that the private sector will play a major role but the government needs to facilitate the fundamental pre-competitive research. Udall agreed about the importance of recycling, stating that “our landfills make us the Saudi Arabia of critical minerals.” Subcommittee Ranking Member Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) was more skeptical arguing that if recycling were economically profitable companies would already be doing it.
Caffarey explained that recycling would create jobs for Americans from the entry-level technical side to the metallurgical and engineering side of mineral exploration and extraction. Both Price and Erceq emphasized the importance of providing research funding and opportunities and creating “centers of excellence” to encourage students to pursue science and engineering education related to critical minerals. Cantwell concluded by saying, “I’d assume that we’d need less centers of excellence in geology and more on the technology side.”
Written testimony, text of the legislation, opening remarks and an archived webcast is available from the subcommittee hearing summary page.
Subcommittee Members Present
Full Committee Members Present
Mounting concerns over the limited U.S. supply of critical minerals, as China continues to reduce exports, led the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources to hold a hearing on June 3, 2011 to discuss two bills that address the issue. The National Strategic and Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2011 (H.R. 2011), presented by Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and Full Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA), would provide $ 1 million for a six month study that would cover all critical minerals. In contrast, the RARE Act of 2011 (H.R. 1314), co-sponsored by Subcommittee Ranking Member Rush Holt (D-NJ), Full Committee Ranking Member Ed Markey (D-MA), and Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA), would provide $10 million for a three year study that would focus only on rare earth elements.
Chairman Lamborn began the meeting with an opening statement that emphasized the importance of critical minerals to national security and the economy. This point was reiterated many times throughout the hearing by representatives from both parties. Lamborn further explained that although the two bills were created to address this issue, they differed in their approaches. Lamborn pointed out that domestic mining has been on the “back burner” for a long time. “Job creation is plummeting” in the United States, Lamborn said. He noted that mining jobs pay well and offer better benefits than any other rural job. He added that these jobs are not just for geologists but for biologists, the construction industry, and other skilled and non-skilled workers. Hastings added that creating these jobs is necessary in order for the U.S. to remain competitive in the global economy.
Holt, in his opening remarks, agreed that developing rare earth minerals is of critical importance. He noted that the national understanding of rare earths is “young and not highly developed.” His primary concern with H.R. 2011 is that the bill does not allot enough time or money to achieve the goals outlined. H.R. 1314 addresses these issues by providing more time and more money for the study, Holt argued, while narrowing the scope to only the area of greatest need, rare earth minerals. The bills differ in the amount of funding and time allotment that they would give to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) for an assessment of domestic critical minerals as well as the scope of the study.
Markey began his testimony by acknowledging that besides Holt, the committee’s “resident scientist,” no one else on the committee could probably name a single rare earth element. “Let’s call them all ‘importing-um,’” he joked, with reference to the fact that the U.S. imports 100 percent of critical minerals. He added that Holt’s bill is supported by the U.S. Magnet Materials Organization.
Jeff Doebrich, the Mineral Resources Program Coordinator for the USGS, discussed the research that the USGS has already done on rare earth element resource assessments and outlined the next steps in improving our knowledge of these resources. He stated that H.R. 1314 outlines a reasonable approach for achieving these next steps. However, he emphasized that the activities called for in the bill are already within the Department of the Interior authorities and any additional assessments would compete with existing administration priorities. In his testimony, Dan Sullivan, Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources for the State of Alaska, stressed the significant role that Alaska will play in any plans for critical mineral development, as the state has “world class” deposits of many rare earth minerals. Alaska is taking a leadership role in the issue and seeks a partnership with the federal government. The government has hindered development through slow permitting processes, which can take seven to ten years, and he would like to speed up the process. Steven Duclos, Chief Scientist and Manager-Materials Sustainability at General Electric, testifying on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers, called attention to the importance of addressing the shortage of critical minerals in the manufacturing supply chain. The last witness, Jim Engdahl, CEO of Greater Western Minerals Group, testified about the importance of having separate assessments for different critical minerals. Like Sullivan, he called for the streamlining of the permitting process for mineral extraction.
Lamborn began the question and answer session by asking Doebrich how data previously acquired by the USGS would be utilized in the assessment. Lamborn added that he wanted an ambitious six month plan because he assumed that the study would build upon existing data already stored on an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) database. He stated firmly that he does not want to send geologists into the field to look at regions that have already been assessed. Doebrich countered that the scope of the desired assessment needs to be more clearly defined. He added that the USGS is in the preliminary process of implementing the assessment and plans to begin in 2013. Lamborn did not seem particularly pleased by this and stated firmly that he would like to jumpstart that process.
Lamborn then asked Duclos if a six month or three year study would be better, highlighting the major difference between the two bills. Duclos responded that a short and comprehensive study is the best option. Later in the hearing, Lamborn further questioned Duclos if he would prefer a study only on rare earths or on all critical minerals and Duclos responded that rare earths should be the focus of the study.
Johnson asked questions on the specifics that differentiate the two critical mineral bills. He asked Doebrich if he felt that a global assessment of rare earths, as called for in H.R. 1314, is a logical next step. Doebrich responded that it is important to have a global perspective as the critical mineral economy is global. Johnson then asked Engdahl if he felt that $10 million over three years was excessive to which Engdahl responded that it seemed like a reasonable ballpark figure.
Holt, whose bill is comprehensive in addressing the entire life cycle of critical minerals, asked several questions focused on the feasibility of reuse and recycling of rare earths. Holt asked Duclos if, from a manufacturer’s perspective, he felt that companies would give full cooperation in disclosing what is used and can be reused in the production process. Duclos responded that manufacturers would be very open to recycling and that they would be willing to share materials information with the government so long as that information is not disclosed to other corporations.
Representatives Holt, Lamborn, Johnson, Bill Flores (R-TX), and Glenn Thompson (R-PA) focused questioning on understanding the specific problems with the permitting process. Holt expressed frustration that many people complain about the permitting process and the “big bad Department of the Interior” but do not offer suggestions for improvement. Sullivan suggested that there be one single group that leads companies and state governments through the permitting process, rather than the multiple federal organizations that currently administer permits. He added that ideally the process should take one to two years rather than seven to ten. Marcilynn Burke of the Department of the Interior, who accompanied Doebrich to the witness stand, added that the average time for processing a permit request is actually around four years. Later in the questioning, she added that there are currently no mining permits for rare earth minerals pending. She noted that the permitting process is expedited for renewable energy sources as opposed to mining and oil and gas extraction. Lamborn expressed agitation that all projects are not given the same “equitable treatment.” He added curtly, “That’s something we’re going to want to delve more into, I can guarantee you that.”
Duclos explained that in Canada the permitting process is not much faster than in the U.S. while in South Africa the permitting process is more streamlined. Engdahl noted that environment and safety concerns are critical but the length of the process could be decreased through cooperation between state and provincial governments. Holt pointed out that Canada has equal or more stringent regulations than the United States but remains a leader in the mineral industry, to which Engdahl agreed.
Written testimony, text of the legislation, opening remarks and an archived webcast is available from the subcommittee hearing summary page.
Written testimony, opening remarks and an archived webcast is available from the subcommittee hearing summary page.
Committee Members Present
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on February 1, 2011 on S.99, the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2011. The legislation is intended to encourage domestic production of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) without using highly enriched uranium (HEU). Mo-99 is the parent isotope of technetium-99, which is used to detect cancer, heart disease and thyroid disease and to study brain and kidney function and image stress fractures.
Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) mentioned the importance of the legislation in regards to securing a reliable supply of Mo-99 to avoid shortages in the future. The United States has not had a domestic supply since 1989, according to Murkowski, and is currently reliant on supplies from Canada and Europe. The “stability and viability of a long term supply is in question,” she said. Bingaman applauded the act for its proposal to phase out the export and use of HEU for medical isotope production and use low enriched uranium (LEU) instead.
Processes based on HEU pose a threat to national security because they use nuclear material enriched to the same degree as that used in nuclear weapons and devices. That material could possibly be acquired by terrorists or rogue states, said Dr. Staples of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The NNSA and the Department of Energy (DOE) have been working with national laboratories and industry to develop technologies that omit the need for HEU, he said, and South Africa has already begun LEU-based Mo-99 production. Staples noted that NNSA supports the development of multiple ways to produce Mo-99, therefore avoiding reliance on a sole technology. NNSA works with commercial entities and offers technical support of U.S. national labs.
Brown went over issues that the Council on Radionuclides and Radiopharmaceuticals (CORAR), a group comprised of companies from the radionuclide industry, wants the committee to consider. A provision of the act states that the DOE is required to accept waste created by the production of medical isotope from DOE-leased uranium. CORAR wants an assurance that the cost of such acceptance is reasonable and comparable to prices paid for commercial disposal if it were available, said Brown.
Murkowski asked what happens to the waste product from producing Mo-99 currently. It is stored onsite at the producing facility, said Staples. Staples stated that more waste is generated from LEU processes compared to HEU.
Murkowski asked the witnesses for comment on the NNSA’s attempt to remain ‘technology neutral’ in their support of LEU production. The key to achieving neutrality is to develop multiple technologies and avoid problems due to dependence on one type, Staples responded. Brown said that while CORAR supports the way DOE has given grants so far, it wants to avoid supporting too many areas of technology and losing focus.
Senator Burr asked if Doane, the technical expert from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), could suggest a timeframe for NRC licensing of new reactors that are not currently specified under the Atomic Energy Act (AEA). One of CORAR’s requests is that the act revises the AEA or directs the NRC to permit licensing of new types of reactors. Because the NRC has not received any applications, it cannot estimate a timeframe, said Doane, though it has begun work on pre-licensing processes. The NRC does not expect new legislation to be necessary for licensing of new reactors, and setting up guidelines may be all that is needed, she explained.
Testimony from the chair, ranking member and panelists can be found here, as well as a video archive of the entire hearing.
Contributed by Geoscience Policy staff; Dana Thomas, 2011 AAPG/AGI Spring Intern; Lauren Herwehe, 2011 AIPG/AGI Summer Intern; Vicki Bierwirth, 2011 AIPG/AGI Summer Intern; Erin Camp, 2011 AAPG/AGI Fall Intern; and Stephen Ginley, 2012 AIPG/AGI Summer Intern.
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Last updated on July 26, 2012