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The World Trade Organization (WTO) has ruled that China has unfairly restricted its export of rare earth elements. Rare earth metals, such as neodymium, are used in permanent-magnet direct-drive generators in wind turbines.

According to the United Steelworkers (USW) union, China produces more than 95% of all rare earths, which also go into electronic products such as flat-screen televisions, smart phones, hybrid-car batteries and petroleum. Action on rare earths and tungsten emanated from a complaint filed by the USW under Section 301 of U.S. trade law in 2010. The group alleged that a broad range of Chinese predatory and protectionist policies were harming the U.S. alternative and renewable energy sector. The global trade case was brought by President Barack Obama in March 2012 and was later joined by both the European Union and Japan.

USW President Leo W. Gerard welcomes the WTO ruling. "The [US Trade Representative's] actions, now backed up by the WTO, are what trade enforcement is all about: Taking on the protectionist policies of our trading partners and fighting for U.S. jobs," says Gerard.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also applauds the WTO’s decision but points to what she considers a larger issue. 

“While I am happy to see this ruling come out in our favor, it by no means resolves the fact that we are almost entirely dependent on a foreign nation for our supply of rare earth elements,” Murkowski says in a statement. “We can file trade complaint after trade complaint, but there is no substitute for the steps that we know we must take to reconstitute our own domestic supply chain. To truly protect our security and promote our competitiveness, we must begin producing more of the minerals we have here at home, including rare earth elements.”

Murkowski argues that the Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2013, which she introduced in October, would help revitalize the U.S.’ critical minerals supply chain and reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign suppliers. The bill directs the Secretary of the Interior to establish a list of minerals critical to the U.S. economy and provides a set of policies to address issues associated with their discovery, production, use and re-use.

According to Murkowski, the bill already has the support of 19 total sponsors in the Senate and received favorable comment from mining, manufacturing, academic, state, and federal witnesses at a January 2014 hearing held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.


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