Lou Barletta: As a coal region, we are sitting on a gold mine of rare earth elements
Rare earth elements don’t get the attention they deserve, but they are essential to our daily lives as key components in an almost endless list of electronic devices. They are also a commodity over which China has a dangerous dominance, placing the United States at the mercy of its Communist government. For economic, national security and, yes, environmental reasons, it is high time to increase domestic production of these minerals, called rare earths.
As a candidate for governor, I intend to raise the profile of this issue, and when I am elected, Pennsylvania will become a leader in the production of ETR.
On the trail of the presidential campaign, Joe Biden notoriously downplayed the economic threat to America posed by China. Biden was wrong, because China has been exploiting American complacency for decades, both in trade and in intellectual property theft. But there is another area where China has “eaten our lunch” that goes unnoticed most of the time: ETR production.
Rare earths are heavy, soft metals used in electronic devices that are everywhere in the world today. They are used in the manufacture of televisions, cell phones, computers, microphones and speakers, among others, but are also extremely versatile. There are medical uses, agricultural uses, and even applications in missile defense systems. In short, rare earth minerals help make modern life possible and should be considered a national security priority.
Against this backdrop of our overt reliance on rare earths, it is alarming that China is providing around 80% of these elements the United States needs – and worse yet, China knows it.
In May 2019, when former President Donald Trump rightly held China responsible for its cheating in international affairs, the Communists threatened to cut exports of rare earth elements to the United States.
The clear answer to the dilemma is to increase the extraction of these minerals here at home. This is an avenue that President Trump identified, issuing an executive order in 2020 to increase American production and reduce our dependence on China.
Expanding domestic production is where Pennsylvania can play a major role, especially in the charcoal areas of our state. In 2017, the US Department of Energy announced that it had identified high concentrations of REE in various parts of the country, including our own anthracite deposits. It was great news and an opportunity to create jobs for Pennsylvania workers, while also marking a victory for America in our ongoing competition with China.
While I was a member of Congress, representing the former 11th District of Pennsylvania, I identified rare earths as the key to the future of our Commonwealth and our nation. I was proud to help secure a million dollar federal grant to Penn State for a pilot project to extract rare earths from waste coal, and visited the site with the U.S. Secretary for Rick Perry Energy in 2017.
The extraction of these precious materials remains a huge economic development opportunity for our region, if we are prepared to attract large companies to come here for this purpose. But it will take leaders who understand the potential and avoid being duped by environmental extremists who are against progress.
In truth, responsible production of rare earths is an environmentally friendly business. As has been made clear on several occasions, the process can take advantage of areas that have already been mined, meaning it can be a first step in land reclamation.
And we all know environmentalists love to promote “clean energy,” including wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars. It may shock some to learn that all of these technologies today are based on rare earth elements.
There is really no good argument against using existing coal sites to produce rare earths. It promotes land reclamation, creates jobs and reduces China’s control over the world market.
We have been mining anthracite coal in our part of Pennsylvania for 150 years. It turns out we were sitting on a gold mine after all.