Pentagon still assessing need for critical materials--DOD analyst

by Annie Snider and Manuel Quinone

Source: E&E News PM

Data being used by the Pentagon to set policies on rare earth elements must be taken with "a huge grain of salt," a Defense Department analyst said at a Capitol Hill conference today.

Michael Steurer of the Defense Logistics Agency's strategic materials program said his group is trying to assess the use of rare earths in smart bombs, stealth planes and other weapons systems by taking apart equipment and tracking materials they find there.

The data will help determine whether DOD decides to stockpile rare earth materials, which are overwhelmingly produced in China, or use the Pentagon's authority to support defense-critical industries to spark U.S. production.

A DOD report last month called it "essential" to establish reliable, non-Chinese sources of rare earth minerals (E&E Daily, Oct. 7).

But some lawmakers say the Pentagon's research has been shoddy. "The first analysis they had was, frankly, wrong," Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said about early DOD assessments, "they were in denial." Coffman has pressed defense officials to keep an inventory of the elements, something akin to a stockpile (E&E Daily, Oct. 18).

While the House Natural Resources Committee has passed legislation to promote the domestic supply of rare earths, including some language championed by Coffman, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has yet to vote on measures pending there.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), keynote speaker at today's National Center for Policy Analysis event, said she would likely meet with Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) this afternoon about her bill (S. 1113).

Despite enjoying significant bipartisan support, Murkowski's bill has worried some Democrats who fear it would weaken environmental reviews. Today, she spoke forcefully about the need to cut red tape and promote U.S. mining because of increased reliance on foreign countries for key resources.

"I think that it is important to note," she said, "that my legislation will not weaken or amend a single environmental statute."

In the end, parts of Sen. Mark Udall's (D-Colo.) bill (S. 383) may be incorporated into a broader package. The full House may vote on its version by early next year.

On possible military-related stockpiles, Murkowski said, "I think it is something that we need to consider."

DOD, however, has no immediate plans to stockpile rare earth materials, Steurer said today. Before the Pentagon takes such a step, a material must first be included in the "Annual Materials Plan" -- the key Pentagon document to identify what it considers important for national defense and difficult to obtain -- and then go through an approval process that requires sign-offs from the secretary of Defense and Congress.

Because rare earth materials were not included in the plan for fiscal 2012, there will be no stockpiling activity until at least the following year, Steurer said.

But last month, the Pentagon called for some actions, including developing risk mitigation strategies for the rarer heavy elements and communicating to industry that defense uses should be the priority if there is a supply crunch.

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