Cruz Urges Development of Domestic Rare Earth Supply Chain, Calls Reliance on China a Risk

April 28, 2020 Updated: April 28, 2020

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has urged administration officials to support the development of a fully domestic rare earths supply chain and to reduce U.S. dependence on China for minerals essential for defense technologies manufacturing.

In letters written to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (pdf) and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt (pdf), Cruz, along with Senate colleagues, cautioned about the risk of relying on the Chinese Communist Party for rare earths, noting that the United States currently only has one operating rare earth mine and no domestic refining capacity.

“It is clear that our dependence on China for vital rare earths threatens our U.S. manufacturing and defense industrial base,” the senators wrote on April 24.

Since the United States has no refining capacity of its own, current rare earth concentrates extracted in California are being sent to China for processing, they wrote.

The lawmakers referenced an October 2018 Defense Industrial Base (DIB) report that stated that China is a “significant and growing risk” to the supply of materials critical to U.S. national security and that ensuring a domestic source of rare earths would reduce the risk to U.S. military readiness.

In July 2019, President Donald Trump wrote in a memo “that the domestic production capability for separation and processing of Light Rare Earth Elements is essential to the national defense.”

During the trade war in 2019, China at one point also threatened to withhold exports of rare earth elements to the United States. 

The senators noted that the United States is “100% import-dependent for rare earths as well as 13 other metals and minerals.” These minerals are listed on the U.S. Government Critical Minerals List.

In the letters, which were both similar in language, the senators warned the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense to “take care that no link in the chain passes through a country that presents risk of supply disruption.”

“Priority consideration should be given to projects that extract and process rare earths from U.S. sources and at U.S. facilities,” they wrote.

“Ensuring a U.S. supply of domestically sourced rare earths will reduce our vulnerability to supply disruptions that pose a grave risk to our military readiness,” the senators continued. “Should the U.S. develop a more robust domestic rare earths supply chain, it is important that the federal government does not pick winners and losers within the industry.”

Rare earth elements include 15 elements with atomic numbers 57 through 71 and are “essential for a diverse and expanding array of high-technology applications,” according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey, a scientific agency of the U.S. government.

“Rare earth elements-containing magnets, metal alloys for batteries and light-weight structures, and phosphors are essential for many current and emerging alternative energy technologies, such as electric vehicles, energy-efficient lighting, and wind power,” the report stated. “REE are also critical for a number of key defense systems and other advanced materials.”

Cruz was joined in the letters by Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.).

Follow Bowen on Twitter: @BowenXiao_