A dust up on critical materials or mineral designations played out in the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Wednesday, centering on how two different federal agencies classify them.

Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., said amendments to the Energy Act of 2020 would streamline classifications between the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Geological Survey which use different metrics in their designations.

“The two agencies use different criteria and do not take into consideration the same parameters leading to sometimes very different lists. Notably, the USGS list does not take into account the forward looking data and analysis such as international demand and growth trajectories that the DOE list does,” he said. “Accordingly, the USGS list omits important minerals like copper,” and others.

He said the Department of Energy does not make the same omissions since any mineral on the USGS list automatically gets placed on the energy agency’s critical material lists.

A bill, HR8446, would fix that, he added.

“This amends the Energy Act of 2020 to automatically place DOE’s deemed materials onto the USGS list.”

Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., stressed that the measure does not add any mineral to the lists, such as copper, but aims to coordinate the lists and improve agency communication and policy.

Utah is home to one of the world’s largest copper producers, the Rio Tinto Bingham Canyon Mine, which also produces by-product gold, molybdenum, silver and tellurium.

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GOP members on the committee took heavy criticism from some of their Democratic colleagues.

“The narrative, if you will, that we hear across the aisle for this bill is that it’s just about consistency, that we have too many lists of critical minerals and materials so we should just combine them,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif. “I don’t buy it. This bill is the result of years of heavy lobbying to politically influence the critical minerals list.”

Huffman said the GOP is trying to inject politics into a classification that should be based on science, not industry-driven interests.

“It is amazing in this Congress, that my colleagues across the aisle who are leading a Congress that can’t govern their way out of a wet paper bag, the least productive Congress in American history, and yet, they seem to believe that the same befuddled members of Congress (know) more than scientists and experts and wildlife biologists and everyone else,” he said. “Members of this Republican majority should stick to doing what they’re actually really good at — which is fighting like ferrets in a phone booth, and they should stay out of science,” he added.

Both Huffman and Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., said if copper was indeed a critical mineral it would be deemed so by the USGS.

According to that agency, copper has become a major industrial metal, ranking third after iron and aluminum in terms of quantities consumed. Electrical uses of copper — including power transmission and generation, building wiring, telecommunication and electrical and electronic products — account for about three quarters of total copper use. Building construction is the single largest market, followed by electronics and electronic products, transportation, industrial machinery, and consumer and general products.

Stansbury stressed, too, that the process for listing needs to be insulated from the political process and not detract from minerals and materials that are deemed critical for good reason.

“Unfortunately, for as long as there has been a critical minerals list, there have been efforts to influence it. And we’ve seen these attempts to legislatively add minerals like copper, uranium, phosphate, potash, and other industry demands with no guarantees that adding these minerals would actually benefit the economy or national security, but most certainly would benefit the bottom line and pockets of these industries,” she said.

The debate over potash, phosphorus

Potash is used to manufacture a variety of products including soap, glass, synthetic rubber and explosives, according to the Utah Geological Survey. Potash is also an essential plant nutrient, and 93% of the potash mined in the world is used as plant fertilizer.

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Like copper, Utah contains abundant potash resources mined from the Great Salt Lake and elsewhere, including outside Dead Horse State Park near Moab.

Potash and phosphorus are critical to the agriculture industry. The Russian invasion of Ukraine put a chokehold on the supply chain.

Westerman said scientists in at a California university said phosphorus — not water — is the key limiting factor impacting the ability to feed people.

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In some cases, farmers have seen the price of fertilizer spike as much as 350% over a three-year period, threatening their operations and driving up food costs.

The measure would not force placement of those minerals on the “critical” list, but rather direct the U.S. Department of Interior to coordinate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Stauber said.

Westerman objected to the criticism about the measures being a political move.

“It is good governance and a common sense piece of legislation. It helps to remove confusion and leaves the autonomy with the Department of Interior and the Department of Energy to decide which minerals and materials go on the list.”

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