WASHINGTON, June 5 (Reuters) - Two uranium mining companies said on Wednesday they are “confident” that U.S. President Donald Trump will implement limits on uranium imports after the Commerce Department recommended urgent steps to boost domestic production of a list of 35 “critical minerals” that included the nuclear fuel.
The White House is currently reviewing a petition lodged by the companies, Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels, that asks the president to require that at least a quarter of U.S. uranium needs are filled by domestic supply, and requiring U.S. federal power utilities and agencies to buy U.S. uranium.
Trump is expected to decide on the petition by July.
“It’s clear that the administration recognizes that relying on imported uranium creates a strategic vulnerability for our economy, military and overall security,” Paul Goranson, chief operating officer of Energy Fuels, and John Cash, vice president of regulatory affairs at Ur-Energy Inc, said in a joint statement to Reuters. “We are confident that he will recognize the danger of imported uranium and use his authority to address this threat and protect U.S. national security.”
The Commerce Department’s report on Tuesday came after Chinese officials suggested rare earths and other critical minerals could be used as leverage in the trade war between the world’s largest economic powers. The report was initially due for release late last year.
U.S. reliance on foreign minerals has worried U.S. officials since 2010, when China - a major global source of the minerals - embargoed exports to Japan during a diplomatic row.
Rare earth minerals are essential for the manufacture of mobile phones and a host of other consumer goods, as well as fighter jets. Uranium is mainly used by the nuclear power industry and for weapons.
Tuesday’s Commerce report included 61 specific recommendations - including low-interest loans and “Buy American” requirements for defense companies - to boost domestic production of minerals.
The measures would throw a lifeline to the struggling domestic uranium mining industry, which in 2017 saw production fall to near historic lows. Current uranium prices are hovering in the mid-$20s/lb compared to highs over $140/lb in 2007.
But some Western Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups raised concerns on Wednesday that greenlighting measures to boost domestic production would put iconic Western landscapes and sacred tribal lands at risk.
The Commerce Department report recommended that both the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service review all areas that are currently “withdrawn” – or protected - from development and assess whether those restrictions should be lifted or reduced to allow for critical mineral development.
It also proposed altering how the Interior Department and its agencies review mining projects under the bedrock National Environmental Policy Act, urging expedited environmental studies and identifying minerals which can be excluded from environmental reviews.
U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva said at a hearing on Wednesday that such measures could open uranium-rich areas near Arizona’s Grand Canyon. He urged Congress to pass his Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act, which would put a permanent ban on new mining claims on one million acres north and south of the national park. (Reporting by Valerie Volcovici Editing by Phil Berlowitz)