Following reports of an alleged blockage of shipments of rare earth minerals from China to the U.S. and Europe, Congressman Edward Markey (D–MA) turned to the Obama Administration for clarification and to express his concern. In a letter to the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce, as well as the U.S. Trade Representative, Markey writes:

I am troubled by this recent turn of events and concerned that the world’s reliance on Chinese rare earth materials, in combination with China’s apparent willingness to use this reliance for leverage in wider international affairs, poses a potential threat to American economic and national security interests.

Markey’s remarks come a month after reports that China ceased shipping its rare earths to Japan, which followed the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain by Japan near disputed territory. The point to take away from his statement is the real concern about over-reliance on China’s minerals. The appropriate response is to remove the bureaucratic obstacles that make domestic access to rare earths prohibitive.

Rare earths are 17 naturally found metals of remarkable importance in the defense, technology, and computer industries. Small amounts are essential to manufacture products such as wind turbines, fiber-optic cables, batteries, microphones, and iPods. The Toyota Prius contains hefty amounts of rare earths, and the U.S. military requires them for night vision goggles and missile guidance systems.

China maintains a virtual monopoly in rare earth exports, accounting for about 97 percent of world totals in 2009 and about 95 percent today. The mining consolidation and export cuts in China both recently and planned for next year signal the need for countries like the U.S. to develop a solution to meeting rare earths needs. That solution is straightforward: give the U.S. access to its own rare earth mineral reserves.

The U.S. alone possesses about 15 percent of known world reserves.  A U.S. Geological Survey report released Wednesday estimates that 13,000 million metric tons of rare earth elements exist in the U.S., with significant deposits located in Alaska, California, and Wyoming.  However, onerous bureaucratic processes and outdated laws on federal land management and mining make gaining access difficult. Cheaper production costs, coupled with these environmental problems, moved production overseas. For example, California’s Mountain Pass mine once allowed the U.S. to be self-sufficient in rare earth production, but it lost its license in 2002 following contaminated waste water issues.

Molycorp Minerals, the owner of Mountain Pass, and aerospace and defense corporation Boeing are already acting to reopen and expand U.S. mining capacity and better identify U.S. reserves. Concerns about reliance on foreign supply for rare earths can be alleviated if the federal government simply removes barriers that prevent access to America’s own rare minerals. Such action would stimulate a potentially competitive market at home and undermine the ability of China (or any other country) to monopolize the global rare earths market.

Emily Goff is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: