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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Rare Earth Elements: The Global Supply Chain - R41347


Marc Humphries
Specialist in Energy Policy

The concentration of production of rare earth elements (REEs) outside the United States raises the important issue of supply vulnerability. REEs are used for new energy technologies and national security applications. Two key questions of interest to Congress are: (1) Is the United States vulnerable to supply disruptions of REEs? (2) Are these elements essential to U.S. national security and economic well-being?

There are 17 rare earth elements (REEs), 15 within the chemical group called lanthanides, plus yttrium and scandium. The lanthanides consist of the following: lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium. Rare earths are moderately abundant in the earth’s crust, some even more abundant than copper, lead, gold, and platinum. While more abundant than many other minerals, REEs are not concentrated enough to make them easily exploitable economically. The United States was once self-reliant in domestically produced REEs, but over the past 15 years has become 100% reliant on imports, primarily from China, because of lower-cost operations.

U.S.-based Molycorp has begun production at its Mountain Pass mine and anticipates production at full capacity (19,050 metric tons) in 2014. Molycorp also operates a separation plant at Mountain Pass, CA, and sells rare earth concentrates and refined products from newly mined and previously mined above-ground stocks. Molycorp announced its purchase of Neo Materials Technology (renamed Moly Canada), a rare earth processor and producer of permanent magnet powders which has facilities in China.

Some of the major end uses for rare earth elements include use in automotive catalytic converters, fluid cracking catalysts in petroleum refining, phosphors in color television and flat panel displays (cell phones, portable DVDs, and laptops), permanent magnets and rechargeable batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles, generators for wind turbines, and numerous medical devices. There are important defense applications, such as jet fighter engines, missile guidance systems, antimissile defense, space-based satellites, and communication systems.

World demand for rare earth elements was estimated at 136,000 tons per year, with global production around 133,600 tons in 2010. The difference was covered by previously mined aboveground stocks. World demand is projected to rise to at least 160,000 tons annually by 2016 according to the Industrial Minerals Company of Australia. Some mine capacity at Mt. Weld Australia has come on-stream in 2012, but far below the projected 11,000 metric tons of capacity. Other new mining projects could easily take as long as 5-10 years to reach production. In the long run, however, the U.S. Geological Survey expects that global reserves and undiscovered resources are large enough to meet demand.

In March 2012, the Obama Administration announced the filing of a World Trade Organization case against China, citing unfair trade practices in rare earths. A final decision is expected to be announced in early 2014. Several legislative proposals have been introduced in the 113
th Congress in the House and Senate to address the potential of U.S. supply vulnerability and to support domestic production of REEs and other critical minerals because of their applications for national security/defense systems and clean energy technologies. On September 18, 2013, the House passed H.R. 761, The National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013.

Date of Report: December 16, 2013
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: R41347
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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal - RL33461

Mark Holt
Specialist in Energy Policy

Management of civilian radioactive waste has posed difficult issues for Congress since the beginning of the nuclear power industry in the 1950s. Federal policy is based on the premise that nuclear waste can be disposed of safely, but proposed storage and disposal facilities have frequently been challenged on safety, health, and environmental grounds. Although civilian radioactive waste encompasses a wide range of materials, most of the current debate focuses on highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants. The United States currently has no disposal facility for spent nuclear fuel.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) calls for disposal of spent nuclear fuel in a deep geologic repository. NWPA established the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) in the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop such a repository, which would be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Amendments to NWPA in 1987 restricted DOE’s repository site studies to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. DOE submitted a license application for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository to NRC on June 3, 2008. The state of Nevada strongly opposes the Yucca Mountain project, citing excessive water infiltration, earthquakes, volcanoes, human intrusion, and other technical flaws.

The Obama Administration “has determined that developing the Yucca Mountain repository is not a workable option and the Nation needs a different solution for nuclear waste disposal,” according to the DOE FY2011 budget justification. As a result, no funding for Yucca Mountain, OCRWM, or NRC licensing was requested or provided for FY2011 or subsequent years. DOE filed a motion with NRC to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application on March 3, 2010. An NRC licensing board denied DOE’s withdrawal motion on June 29, 2010, a decision sustained by the NRC commissioners on a tie vote September 9, 2011. Despite that decision, NRC halted further consideration of the license application because of “budgetary limitations,” but a federal appeals court on August 13, 2013, ordered NRC to continue the licensing process with previously appropriated funds.

After halting the Yucca Mountain project, the Administration established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to develop an alternative nuclear waste policy. The commission issued its final report on January 26, 2012, recommending that a new, “singlepurpose organization” be given the authority and resources to promptly begin developing one or more nuclear waste repositories and consolidated storage facilities. The commission recommended a “consent based” process for siting nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities and that long-term research, development, and demonstration be conducted on technologies that could provide waste disposal benefits.

After OCRWM was dismantled, responsibility for implementing the Administration’s nuclear waste policy was given to DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy (NE). In January 2013, NE issued a nuclear waste strategy based on the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations. The strategy calls for a pilot interim storage facility for spent fuel from closed nuclear reactors to open by 2021 and a larger storage facility, possibly at the same site, to open by 2025. A site for a permanent underground waste repository would be selected by 2026, and the repository would open by 2048. DOE requested $60 million for FY2014 to carry out the new waste strategy, an amount approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. However, the House denied funding for the new strategy and provided $25 million for Yucca Mountain instead.

Date of Report: December 2, 2013
Number of Pages: 32
Order Number: RL33461
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Friday, December 13, 2013

Interstate Natural Gas Pipelines: Process and Timing of FERC Permit Application Review - R43138


Paul W. Parfomak
Specialist in Energy and Infrastructure Policy

Growth in U.S. shale gas production involves the expansion of natural gas pipeline infrastructure to transport natural gas from producing regions to consuming markets, typically in other states. Over 300,000 miles of interstate transmission pipeline already transport natural gas across the United States. However, if the growth in U.S. shale gas continues, the requirement for new pipelines could be substantial. This ongoing expansion has increased congressional interest in the role of the federal government in the certification (permitting) of interstate natural gas pipelines.

Under Section 7(c) of the Natural Gas Act of 1938, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is authorized to issue certificates of “public convenience and necessity” for “the construction or extension of any facilities ... for the transportation in interstate commerce of natural gas.” Thus, companies seeking to build interstate natural gas pipelines must first obtain certificates of public convenience and necessity from FERC. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct) designates FERC as the lead agency for coordinating “all applicable Federal authorizations” and for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance in reviewing pipeline certificate applications.

There are no statutory time limits within which FERC must complete its certificate review process. However, EPAct authorizes FERC to establish a schedule for all related federal authorizations and provides for judicial petition if an agency fails to comply with that schedule. Congress included these provisions in EPAct to address concerns that some interstate gas pipeline and other energy infrastructure approvals were being unduly delayed by a lack of coordination or insufficient action among agencies involved in the certification process. FERC has promulgated regulations requiring certificate-related final decisions from other agencies no later than 90 days after the commission issues its final environmental document.

Notwithstanding the EPAct provisions, there is continuing concern by some in the gas industry and in Congress that FERC review of pipeline certificate applications can still take too long. The Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act (H.R. 1900) seeks to expedite the federal review of certificate applications by imposing deadlines on the agencies involved. H.R. 1900 would impose an explicit 12-month deadline on FERC certificate reviews for projects using FERC’s pre-filing procedures and would codify the commission’s 90-day regulatory deadline for any certificaterelated agency decisions. Any agency decision not meeting the 90-day deadline would be approved by default.

The optimal time for any deadline that Congress might impose on FERC or cooperating agencies is open to debate. The 12-month deadline in H.R. 1900 would be approximately the same as the average FERC certificate review time today. However, 12 months could represent a reduction in the review time that might be expected for atypically lengthy or complex pipeline projects. In light of FERC’s recent record approving new gas pipelines, FERC commissioners have been neutral or modestly supportive towards legislative proposals for stronger certificate review authorities. However, deadlines imposed on FERC or cooperating agencies could raise the possibility that they might deny permits for some projects solely on the grounds that they lack sufficient time for an adequate review. The ability of FERC and any other federal or state agencies it works with to expedite their parts of certificate review to meet an expedited schedule may be limited by available resources.

Date of Report: November 19, 2013
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: R43138
Price: $29.95


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