California Miners Call for Legislation to Ease China’s Grip on Rare Earth Minerals

By Brad Jones
Brad Jones
Brad Jones
Brad Jones is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California.
September 16, 2019 Updated: September 17, 2019

California miners have been warning Congress about China’s ever-tightening grip on rare earth minerals needed for national defense for years, and now they’ve taken their message to the White House.

In the last year or so, representatives of Public Lands for the People (PLP), a national mining rights advocacy group based in Southern California, and Scott Harn, editor and publisher of ICMJ’s Prospecting and Mining Journal, have made five trips to Washington, D.C. to meet with lawmakers, their aides, and federal government departments.

PLP’s researcher Clark Pearson was invited to the White House in 2018, and since then he and Harn have spent a total of 35 days in Washington meeting with President Donald Trump’s key advisors.

“For the last three years, PLP has distributed education materials to members of Congress, and for the last two years has been engaging in ongoing meetings with top officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Interior and even the Pentagon, providing specific language needed regarding regulatory certainty for the mining industry,” Pearson said.

PLP is calling for amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act. The proposed legislation, “Critical Minerals: National Security Amendments to the NDAA,” is subtitled “Breaking China’s grip on America’s mining and production of critical minerals.”

“China’s well-executed plan, complicity of the American tech industry and U.S. policy failures led to a major national security vulnerability in critical minerals,” it reads.

The proposed amendments, if adopted, would:
• Provide regulatory certainty that is critical for the mining industry and American investment in critical minerals.
• Provide relief from America’s dependency on China and other unfriendly nations for critical minerals essential for our high-tech and military needs, which is essential for America’s national security.
• Help curb the devastating environmental destruction occurring in China, which has profound and unwelcome effects on the United States and the world.
• Help prevent the theft of intellectual property by eliminating the need for American companies to relocate manufacturing to China in order to secure a critical mineral supply chain.

“Without a reasonable permit system and access to known and potential mineral deposits, there cannot be regulatory certainty. Without regulatory certainty, there will be no development of critical minerals in the United States and no critical minerals supply chain,” Harn said. “And, without a critical minerals supply chain in America, our national security is continually in jeopardy.”

PLP President Ron Kliewer said the NDAA provides a practical means for miners’ voices to finally be heard.

The mining, he said, is taking place in China and other countries, and it’s a lucrative arrangement for both the Chinese government and American tech companies but puts national security at risk.

“Our best bet is to get mining rights legislation into the NDAA,” Kliewer said. “In the last three years, American companies have made $1.66 billion in mining deals with the Chinese.”

PLP has long held the position that without consistency and clearly defined regulations, America’s mining industry will continue to find itself in peril, Kliewer said. For the last few decades, mining groups have been railroaded into state courtrooms to fight the onslaught of overregulation spurred on by sue-and-settle lawsuits from environmental lobby groups. These groups, often citing the Endangered Species Act and using the Equal Access to Justice Act, have been accused of working in collusion with federal, state and local agencies to restrict mining operations and peddle government land grabs.

States trampling on the federal rights of miners has been the crucible of contention for decades, Kliewer said. And, at the crux of all court battles is the miners’ steadfast belief in their congressionally granted mining rights under the federal Mining Law of 1872 and federal preemption. Miners believe that federal mining law supersedes, or preempts, state law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States, which states that federal law is the “supreme law of the land” and therefore trumps state law.

“We’ve learned that we can’t get a fair shake in the California courts. The bigger picture is what’s going on nationally and internationally. By getting this proposed legislation into the National Defense Authorization Act, it will take precedence over state jurisdiction,” Kliewer said. “We’re making inroads but we haven’t gotten any legislation through yet.”

PLP Treasurer Walt Wegner said miners are optimistic about the Trump administration’s pro-mining mindset compared to policies of former president Barack Obama and his administration.

“Trump has changed the direction of where we were going as far as environmental issues,” Wegner said. “If he could just wave his magic wand, he would help us tomorrow, but this president has a big part of Washington, including Democrats and Republicans, against him.”

While Trump has repeatedly panned China for its unfair manipulation of currency and theft of intellectual property rights in the global marketplace, the issue of strategic minerals for America’s national defense seldom makes the news.

“This president is all about national security. He’s going after China. He’s put tariffs on them. China has been ripping us off,” Wegner said. “We are importing over 90 percent of our strategic minerals from China. The military is on board with us but they’re not a political arm. This president has done a lot to help us, but he’s got a lot on his plate. Trump is doing some great things.”

America needs to re-establish mining rights and extract rare earth minerals used in national defense as well as other minerals for refining into metals used in the manufacturing of solar panels, wind turbines, computers, smart phones, electric cars and all things green, Wegner argued. Critical minerals provide necessary components for everyday items from flat-screen televisions to lithium batteries to aircraft components, radar arrays and missile guidance systems.

“It’s all mined,” Wegner said.

Brad Jones
Brad Jones
Brad Jones is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California.