with Paulina Firozi


During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump spoke often about the need to mine more coal as he courted voters in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. After his election, his administration swiftly took steps to repeal Obama-era emissions rules on coal-fired power plants.

But with less fanfare, the Trump administration is also trying to ease the way for more mining of all forms, arguing that access to certain ores is critical to national and economic security.

On Friday, the U.S. Geological Survey published a list of 35 “critical minerals,” paving the way for the Trump administration to potentially ease environmental review requirements for the mining of titanium, graphite and other commodities.

The announcement is just the latest from the Trump administration trying to bolster domestic industries that has lost ground to foreign competitors, such as China, that are able to produce commodities more cheaply because of looser environmental and labor standards.

Among the minerals listed by the USGS, a division of the Interior Department, are aluminum, used to construct military and other aircraft, and zirconium, used to make high-temperature ceramics.

The list also includes elements crucial to alternative forms of energy, such as tellurium found in solar panels and lithium used in batteries in electric cars and cellphones.

What each mineral has in common, according to the office of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, is that the United States is “heavily reliant” on importing them from foreign mines despite the nation having its own deposits. 

The USGS, the main scientific arm of the Interior Department, produced the list in response to an executive order from President Trump declaring the country faces a “strategic vulnerability” to these minerals because, among other concerns, “delays" and "the potential for protracted litigation” regarding mining permits. 

Environmentalists, including lawyer Aaron Mintzes of the environmental nonprofit organization Earthworks, are worried the Trump administration is using national defense as a pretense to try to circumvent environmental reviews on mining projects under the National Environmental Policy Act .

“Our main concern is that this is the first step in the process toward undermining public input in mining decisions that governments make,” Mintzes said. “This is cutting the people out.”

But Republicans in Congress, especially those from mineral-rich states such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, cheered the announcement on Friday.

“I thank Secretary Zinke for his efforts to develop this list of minerals, highlighting our most critical vulnerabilities,” Murkowski, who heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. “These minerals are needed for energy, healthcare, manufacturing, defense, agriculture, and other technologies, and we must now take real steps to secure a reliable, long-term domestic supply.”

Meanwhile, the mining industry’s main lobbying group in Washington, the National Mining Association, expressed concern over the government’s “narrow view of ‘criticality,’ ” suggesting that the ores of copper, zinc and other metals that were not listed by USGS are vital, as well. 

“As NMA has previously articulated, more than a complex listing process, we need a simplified and efficient permitting system that unlocks the value of all our domestic mineral resources,” NMA spokeswoman Caitlin Musselman said.

With the list in hand, the Commerce Department will organize a government-wide plan to make sure the United States has reliable access to the minerals. Under the executive order, the plan will include recommendations for developing recycling technologies at home and increasing trade with allies abroad, in addition to streamlining permitting and environmental review processes.

In its announcement Friday, the USGS said that although the list of 35 minerals is labeled as “final,” it “is not intended as a permanent designation of criticality.” The Commerce Department’s report to Trump will also include recommendations to buttress the supply chain of all minerals, whether or not they are listed as critical.

Of particular concern for environmentalists is the inclusion of uranium on the list. Trump’s executive order was supposed to target “non-fuel” minerals, but uranium is primarily used to power nuclear reactors. A uranium company was among those that lobbied the Trump administration to shrink back Bears Ears National Monument, which sits near uranium deposits.

“This is silly because this is not supposed to be a list about fuel minerals,” Mintzes said.

Such an invocation of national security was one once heard often about oil. Unless the United States was able to produce enough of its own fuel domestically, both Republicans and Democrats once argued, the country would be subject to the whims of oil-producing nations such as Saudi Arabia. 

Since the boom in hydraulic fracturing for U.S. natural gas over the past decade, however, those fears of domestic energy security have abated.


— Zinke’s VIPs: Ryan Zinke and his wife Lola Zinke requested various VIP tours of National Park Service sites for friends, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports. They included:

  • A guided tour of Joshua Tree National Park in California for “two friends from England” of Lola Zinke’s.
  • Two custom White House tours for friends of Ryan Zinke's affiliated with the Navy SEAL program.
  • Special tours of the Lincoln Memorial for the Zinkes' acquaintances, as well as administration officials.

Top Interior Department officials in both Democratic and Republican administrations have gotten similar access to NPS sites. For example, Obama officials stayed at the Brinkerhoff Lodge in Grand Teton National Park only to later reimburse the government following criticism. But “Don Hellmann, who headed the Park Service’s office for legislative and congressional affairs for eight of his 22 years with the agency, said in an interview that Zinke and his aides appear to be devoting a disproportionate amount of time to arranging VIP tours,” Eilperin reports.

An Interior Department spokeswoman said in an email Thursday that Zinke "uses his own personal time to give tours of the Lincoln Memorial to employees, reporters, and the general public several times per month because he believes the more people who experience our parks, the better."

— Bumps in Pruitt’s rollback campaign: More than a half-dozen major Environmental Protection Agency efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations under Administrator Scott Pruitt have been snagged by procedural and legal problems, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. “The delays threaten to tarnish Pruitt’s image as an effective warrior in President Trump’s battle against federal regulations, a reputation that has so far saved the EPA administrator his job amid an array of investigations into ethical and management lapses."

Among the delayed holdups is a relaxation of rules for storing potentially toxic coal ash waste from power plants. Instead of citing established scientific research in its repeal, the EPA referenced "a four-page document from utility industry trade association." Environmental lawyers seized the omission.

— Another day, another probe: The EPA’s internal watchdog announced Friday it will investigate how the agency preserves emails and text messages, as well as its process for responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. The new investigation comes as a response to questions from Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) following reports that Pruitt uses four email addresses. “The anticipated benefits of this project are ensuring the effectiveness of EPA processes for preserving electronic records and responding to FOIA requests,” per the IG’s letter.

— If you're not going to San Francisco... Former Santa Barbara County supervisor Mike Stoker has been tapped to lead the EPA’s regional West Coast office, Pruitt announced Friday. “Mike Stoker is highly qualified and well-equipped to lead Region 9,” Pruitt said in a news release.

Among Stoker's distinctions is his claim to having coined the chant “lock her up” against 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the Los Angeles Times reports. He also has questioned the mainstream consensus on climate change and "doesn't appear to want to live anywhere near San Francisco" where the Region 9 office is located, per the LA Times.

— "Well, this weather’s sure getting weird:" Former vice president Al Gore said federal lawmakers are, slowly but surely, finding a middle ground on the issue of climate change, despite the Trump administration’s efforts. “We are very close to a governing majority on climate in the House and the Senate,” Gore said at the Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit in Seattle last week. “Even people who don’t like to use the term ‘climate crisis,’ they say, ‘Well, this weather’s sure getting weird … The scale of the climate crisis is far beyond what people can comprehend — areas around the world will become uninhabitable and will see a large influx of climate refugees.”

Last week, the Climate Solutions Caucus added five new members, bringing its total to 78. That caucus is evenly divided between House Democrats and Republicans.

— FERC rules on climate impacts: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled Friday that it will not consider evaluations of climate impacts when approving interstate pipelines. “FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre and fellow Republicans Robert Powelson and Neil Chatterjee wrote in the majority opinion that federal law does not require the commission to consider the upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emission impact in pipeline reviews,” the Washington Examiner reports. “That means it can't evaluate the effect of greenhouse gas emissions released by the products transported through pipelines and during the production process of the natural gas to be shipped.”

Meanwhile, FERC's two Democrats "characterized the dismissal as a de-facto policy change that limits how the commission factors in the impact of climate change,” Bloomberg News reports.


— Big batteries risk big blazes: As energy storage improves, city planners in New York and other U.S. cities are worried about how big batteries may pose a fire risk. “In the latest trend, racks of batteries stacked up to the size of studio apartments are being installed in urban spaces like office buildings and shopping malls,” Bloomberg News reports. “The units allow buyers to tap into lower cost and renewable energy and supply backup power during widespread outages.

But the chemistry that allows lithium-ion batteries to store energy also poses a hazard. "While fires are rare, an overheating unit can ignite. And while water can put out a battery blaze, it takes a lot more of it than usual.”


Coming Up

  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on DOE Modernization on Tuesday.
  • The House Appropriations holds a markup of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill for 2019 on Tuesday.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology and Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on empowering veterans through technology on Tuesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds a legislative hearing on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development holds a markup of the 2019 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill on Tuesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a markup on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies holds a hearing on NASA 2019 budget on Wednesday.
  • The Partnership for Advancing an Inclusive Rural Energy Economy holds a livecast on Wednesday.
  • The Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the American Biogas Council hold a briefing  on Thursday.
  • The Senate Appropriations Committee holds a markup of Energy and Water Development and Agriculture Appropriations Bills on Thursday.
  • EIA holds its annual 2018 Energy Conference June 4-5.

— Capping off another week of volcanic activity on Hawaii’s big island, the lava has caused the first known injury, shattering a man’s leg from his shin to his foot, according to The Post's Amy B. Wang.