A Long Time Coming: Biden Administration Advances Domestic Critical Minerals Development in Pennsylvania

Biden Administration funding advances potential for domestic critical mineral supplies and for a new chapter in Pennsylvania’s energy history.

Can the remnants of the fossil energy production that fueled both the Industrial Revolution and climate disruption help propel the domestic manufacturing of clean energy technologies?

I wrote about this—and the opportunity for Pennsylvania—seven years ago.

Last week, against a backdrop of news that Greenland is going green in a profoundly bad way, the Biden administration took a major step to realizing that long-dormant Pennsylvania potential.

First, some background.

Rare earth elements are critical inputs for electric power generation and the manufacture of a wide range of energy technologies, including batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles. The clean energy transition will strain the global production of these elements and other critical minerals for decades.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that today’s mineral supply and investment plans fall far short of what’s needed, and that new and more diversified supply sources will be vital to achieving a clean energy future.

Worse, in recent years, the global supply, mining and distribution of these minerals has come under intense pressure for a variety of reasons, including high demand, geopolitical tensions, lack of sustainable sources, and poor recovery efforts.

And worse still, the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2024 Mineral Commodity Summaries finds that the United States is 100% net import reliant for 12 of 50 listed critical minerals and more than 50% net import reliant for an additional 29. Recycling provided the only source of domestic supply for seven of these minerals.

Securing domestic critical mineral supplies is crucial for the nation’s clean energy transition—and to national security. The National Mining Association, predictably, says “permitting reform” and the approval of new mines—some on public lands—are the solutions.

But the reality is that mining for critical elements causes severe environmental damage. Reducing or eliminating environmental and public health protections, befouling land, and blighting communities and public lands to generate these supplies would be an extremely shortsighted approach. And so, the question becomes: how can we sustainably produce these critical materials?

Enter Pennsylvania.

Researchers at Penn State University identified rare earth elements in coal 70 years ago. Their successors are studying eco-friendly extraction methods, and in 2019, launched a new Center for Critical Minerals.

In 2021, Penn State and partners received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to create the Consortium to Assess Northern Appalachia Resource Yield (CANARY), to assess and catalog critical mineral resources in the northern Appalachian-basin, develop strategies to recover them, and identify supply-chain or technology gaps.

All that work is finally paying off.

On February 15, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced over $17 million in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for Front-End Engineering and Design (FEED) studies for three projects that will support the development of facilities that produce critical minerals from coal and coal byproducts. Two of them have Pennsylvania connections:

  • a demonstration-scale modular rare earth and critical mineral production plant in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania that will process material exposed during surface mining of metallurgical coal for steel production, by Tetra Tech Inc. (a CANARY partner)
  • a commercial-scale plant designed to recover rare earth elements from coal ash (of which Pennsylvania and other states have a lot) at the Harllee Branch Power Plant in Milledgeville, Georgia, by Winner Water Services Inc.(based in Sharon, Pennsylvania)

The projects will create jobs in communities that have historically produced fossil fuels and are vulnerable in the energy transition. Project teams were required to submit community benefits plans to “demonstrate meaningful engagement with and tangible benefits to” the host communities.

With this funding, the Biden administration has taken a major climate step that will meet a critical national need, advance a just transition, and help Pennsylvania write a new chapter in its energy history.

John Quigley

Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center
John Quigley is a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center and previously served on the Center’s Advisory Board. He served as Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection and of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.