Congress helped create the domestic rare earth minerals shortage—and now it can fix it
Last week an unknown Chinese phone company, ZTE, was thrust into the spotlight because of ongoing trade negations and sanctions talk. Members of the Senate and House were up in arms because President Trump was in discussions to lift or modify the sanctions on the Chinese government-linked company. There is no doubt the company’s equipment poses a national security threat, but no one is asking the question how.
Last week, the Senate Banking Committee approved legislation 23-2 blocking the Trump administration from easing sanctions on ZTE, the aforementioned Chinese phone company, for national security reasons.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) stated, “Most members of Congress have come to understand the threat China poses. There’s a growing commitment in Congress to do something about what China is trying to do to the United States. And this is a good place to start.”
When asked about President Trump possibly making a deal with China and ZTE, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) stated, “This seems to be an area where Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate are coming together and telling the president, you’ve got to be tough on China, you have to have your actions match your rhetoric.”
What the Senate is ignoring or doesn’t know, is it played a rather large part in creating the problem with ZTE.
Not a peep about the reason China dominates the technology manufacturing industry from either side of the aisle in the Senate. It seems both Senators forget the core problem. Yes, communications equipment made in China is probably being used as spying devices and should not be trusted, but environmentalist regulators have made it next to impossible to mine the rare earth elements (REEs) needed to make the equipment in the U.S.
REEs are a group of 15 elements between atomic numbers 57 and 71 that have unusual physical and chemical properties, giving them multiple applications in the defense industry and civilian market.
The U.S. military is wholly dependent on rare earth minerals for a large assortment of weapons systems. The smart weapons that allow the military to use one bomb for one target while reducing collateral damage use guidance systems. The motors and fin actuators that steer the weapons use rare earth elements, specifically neodymium magnets.
The Congressional Research Service listed defense-related applications for REEs:
- fin actuators in missile guidance and control systems, controlling the direction of the missile;
- disk drive motors installed in aircraft, tanks, missile systems, and command and control centers;
- lasers for enemy mine detection, interrogators, underwater mines, and countermeasures;
- satellite communications, radar, and sonar on submarines and surface ships; and
- optical equipment and speakers.
Not only do REEs play a key role in national defense, but they also play an irreplaceable role in the modern communications industry. A single iPhone contains eight different rare-earth metals. The speakers, screen, and vibration feature would not work without rare earth elements. The elements are also used in televisions, computers, light bulbs, and catalytic converters. It is not a stretch to say rare earth elements are the foundation of our modern society.
China has used excessively harsh regulations in the U.S. to corner the rare earth market. China refuses to export the material, forcing the companies to relocate to the mainland for manufacture. This is how China came to dominate the electronics manufacturing market. The market for rare earth elements is only expected to reach $10.9 billion in 2020, and China turned it into a technology manufacturing industry valued at $4.8 trillion.
As the Senate rushes to the nearest TV crew to complain about something the President is doing, House of Representatives isn’t just standing by. There are several bills in the House dealing with the rare earth element issue, including Rep. Amoedi’s amendment to the recently passed House NDAA, H.Amdt. 647 to H.R. 5515.
Thankfully for the security and economic power of the nation, the Amodei amendment passed the NDAA in the House. The amendment tackles the rare earth problem by:
- Requiring federal agencies to more efficiently develop domestic sources of strategic and critical minerals and mineral materials on federal lands;
- Facilitating a timely permitting process for mineral exploration and mine development projects by clearly defining the responsibilities of a lead agency and reducing duplicative processes without compromising existing environmental standards; and
- Streamlining the total review process for issuing permits to 30 months unless signatories to the permitting timeline agree to an extension.
The amendment passed with bipartisan support showing the House understands the problem. Now if the camera hogging Senate wanted to show it was truly serious about the danger of Chinese telecommunications equipment, it should easily pass the same amendment in the Senate version of the NDAA.
Printus LeBlanc is a contributing editor at Americans for Limited Government.