Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources held a forum on Oct. 22 to discuss how President Biden’s exit from Afghanistan left massive, untapped reserves of rare earth metals, lithium, and other vital minerals in the Taliban’s hands, potentially opening them up to exploitation by China.
Speakers said the Biden administration has simultaneously worked to hinder key mining projects in the United States, such as Minnesota’s Twin Metals copper-nickel project and Arizona’s Resolution copper mine, which would allow the United States to produce many of those minerals at home, thereby avoiding dependence on the Taliban or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“It’s almost like it’s intentional, to stop U.S. production of these critical minerals and elements,” said Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the ranking Republican on the committee. His remarks were later echoed by Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.), who said that some of the environmentalist groups fighting mining “we think are getting money from Russia, China, and other countries that are foes of ours.”
Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.), whose district includes the proposed site of the Twin Metals mine, spoke at length about the economic and security costs of relying on key minerals from abroad.
“For 15 years, scientists from the USGS [U.S. Geological Survey], at a taxpayer cost of right around $81 million, found [in Afghanistan] massive amounts of lithium, gold, platinum, iron, coal, uranium, and more,” he said.
“We know what happens next. The Taliban’s neighbor to the east, China, will swoop in and shortly thereafter control all of these mineral resources. There is no doubt at our current pace, the United States will have to purchase those minerals from China for our electric cars, our windmills, our iPhones, and our solar panels.
“Northern Minnesota has these minerals. We could look to union miners to supply them from my district. We have 95 percent of America’s nickel, 88 percent of America’s cobalt, and over one-third of America’s copper. It should be easy.”
Discussing the possibility of the imminent Chinese mineral exploitation in Afghanistan, Joe Felter of the Hoover Institution said it was plausible, though not certain.
“It depends. The challenges and calculated risks of mining rare earths and other minerals are significant in Afghanistan, and they could outweigh the opportunities in the near- and medium-term,” said Felter, who served in the Pentagon during the Trump administration. “One notable exception, I think, is China’s interest in getting increased access to lithium.”
Felter recommended that the United States reduce its reliance on Chinese or Chinese-dominated supply chains.
Pressed by Stauber on where else the United States could source minerals, Felter said that “almost any other country than China would be a better alternative” before noting that Australia was a U.S. ally with significant mining capacity.
Mary Hutzler, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for Energy Research, described the scale of the United States’ dependence on Chinese mineral resources for its renewable energy infrastructure, which dwarfs our past reliance on foreign oil before the United States achieved energy independence under President Donald Trump.
“Our reliance on China is about 80 percent for these minerals right now, where the high for us in 2001 on oil from the Middle East was 23 percent,” she said. “We’re going to be four times as dependent on China as we were on the Middle East.”
China’s competitive advantage in mineral processing and refinement stems in part from its reliance on cheap coal energy, which it is expected to expand, Hutzler said.
She also said that environmental permitting has stymied many recent mining projects in the United States, with the second proposed lithium mine in the United States—Nevada’s Thacker Pass—currently delayed by lawsuits.
In response to questioning by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Hutzler said that Europe’s present reliance on Chinese magnesium for automobile manufacturing offers a cautionary tale.
“With China’s crunch recently, they have closed 35 of their 50 magnesium plants. As a result, they are not exporting magnesium to Europe. Europe has only stockpiles to go through November. As a result, what’s going to happen is their automobile industry will become a standstill industry. That could happen to us because of our dependence on China,” Hutzler said.
Tiffany was among those who focused on the human rights abuses accepted by those who rely on minerals mined or processed in China. He has introduced legislation aimed at preventing goods made with forced Uyghur labor from entering the U.S. market.
“We [Americans] are freedom-loving people. We do not accept that the Uyghurs should be enslaved,” he said.
“We shouldn’t expect anything different from China than their track record suggests—and it’s a pretty poor track record,” Felter said.
“When you’ve got these foreign-owned businesses run by the state that don’t have the same labor requirements we do, don’t have the same health and safety and environmental requirements, really, the only way I see you stop that is to penalize those imports coming into our country,” Westerman said.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) closed the forum by urging members to support his proposal, the Stopping Terrorist Mineral Trade Act, which would prevent the importation of minerals, or mineral-derived products, originating in Afghanistan.
“I know that my colleagues at this forum wish this important topic was something we could approach on a bipartisan basis, grounded in factual discussions focused on solutions. Unfortunately, our Democratic colleagues see all American mining as unnecessary, and are hellbent on seeing that it doesn’t happen,” he said.
“For some reason, they never can see the right mine or the right place in America for mining.”