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Highlights

What GAO Found

Federal agencies are primarily focused on two areas of activity related to critical materials supply—assessing risk and supporting research. For example, the Department of Energy (DOE) has conducted two criticality assessments on materials important to clean energy applications and manages the Critical Materials Institute—a 5-year, $120 million investment aimed at mitigating risks by diversifying supply, providing alternatives to existing materials, and improving recycling and reuse. In addition, agencies conduct a range of other critical materials related activities, including stockpiling or producing materials, and reviewing and approving resource extraction projects, among other efforts.

The federal approach to addressing critical materials supply has areas of strength but is not consistent with selected key practices for interagency collaboration and faces other limitations, as shown below.

Selected Strengths and Limitations of Federal Critical Materials Activities

According to its charter, the Subcommittee on Critical and Strategic Mineral Supply Chains (Subcommittee)—co-chaired by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), DOE, and the Department of the Interior—is to facilitate a strong, coordinated effort across its member agencies on critical materials activities. However, the Subcommittee's efforts have not been consistent with selected key practices for interagency collaboration, including agreeing on roles and responsibilities; establishing mutually reinforcing or joint strategies; and developing mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report on results. For example, some member agencies do not have a clear role in the Subcommittee's efforts and have had limited or no involvement in its work. By taking steps to actively engage all member agencies in its efforts and clearly define roles and responsibilities, the Subcommittee would have more reasonable assurance that it can effectively marshal the potential contributions of all member agencies to help identify and mitigate critical materials supply risks.

Other limitations to the federal approach to addressing critical materials supply include limited engagement with industry and a limited focus on domestic production. For example, the Department of Commerce (Commerce) is required by law to identify and assess cases of materials needs. However, Commerce does not solicit information from stakeholders across a range of industrial sectors. As a result, Commerce may not have comprehensive, current information across a range of industrial sectors to help it identify and assess materials needs.

Why GAO Did This Study

Certain metals, minerals, and other “critical” raw materials play an important role in the production of advanced technologies across a range of industrial sectors and defense applications. Recently, concentration of the supply of some critical materials under foreign control has renewed questions about the U.S. government's and industry's ability to address potential supply disruptions.

GAO was asked to examine U.S. efforts to identify and strategically plan for critical materials supply issues. Among other objectives, this report (1) describes federal agencies' activities related to the supply of critical materials and (2) evaluates the federal government's approach to addressing critical materials supply issues. GAO reviewed relevant laws, agency documents, and academic studies; interviewed federal officials; and conducted a two-stage web-based survey of a nongeneralizable sample of critical materials experts selected to cover a range of subject matter areas.

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Recommendations

GAO is making six recommendations, including that OSTP take steps to improve interagency collaboration by, for example, defining Subcommittee member roles and responsibilities and that Commerce engage with stakeholders to continually identify and assess critical materials needs across industrial sectors. Commerce agreed. OSTP agreed with one and neither agreed nor disagreed with the other four recommendations but discussed how roles and responsibilities are defined, among other things. GAO continues to believe these steps are needed, as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Commerce To fulfill the role assigned to it under the 1980 Act, the Secretary of Commerce should engage with industry stakeholders and continually identify and assess critical materials needs across a broad range of industrial sectors.
Open
In December 2016, Commerce provided information on its implementation of the recommendation from GAO-16-699. Commerce stated that it had developed an action plan consisting of the following steps: (1) consulting with relevant offices and agencies, including: OSTP, DOD, the U.S. Geological Survey, DOE, the U.S. International Trade Commission, the Bureau of Industry and Security, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; (2) determining criteria to be used when it is necessary to collect information to identify and assess critical materials needs; (3) determining appropriate steps, which might include: (a) developing a summary of information that federal agencies currently collect on the domestic and international supply of critical raw materials; (b) soliciting input from a broad range of industries through a Federal Register notice; (c) assessing aggregate information, as allowable under law, that is submitted through the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill process over the course of fiscal year 2017; and (d) consulting with federal advisory groups for advice; (4) determining the audience for collected information and methodology for information dissemination; (5) determining the process for identifying further information collection needs and methodology for disseminating collected information; and (6) determining the timeline and responsibilities for information collection and distribution. In an April 2017 update, Commerce stated that it had identified points of contacts in seven of the eight agencies listed in its action plan and is in the process of contacting them for input. Commerce stated that it hoped to identify an appropriate contact in the eighth agency in the near future. Commerce stated that it had also drafted questions to ask the agencies in order to implement the action plan. Commerce did not provide a timeframe for when it expected to complete implementation of the action plan. In a June 2018 update, Commerce stated that since the change in Administration, Commerce has not been able to identify staff in all agencies to work with, but that Commerce is now in contact with several agencies who are aware of industry needs. Commerce did not provide a timeframe for when it expected to complete execution of its action plan. We are continuing to evaluate these issues given recent Administration and agency actions, and will update the status of the recommendation based on additional information received.
Office of Science and Technology Policy To enhance the ability of the Executive Office of the President to coordinate federal agencies to carry out the national materials policy outlined in the 1980 Act, and to strengthen the federal approach to addressing critical materials supply issues through enhanced interagency collaboration, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, working with the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Critical and Strategic Mineral Supply Chains and agency leadership, as appropriate, should agree on and clearly define the roles and responsibilities of member agencies and take steps to actively engage all relevant federal agencies in the Subcommittee's efforts.
Closed - Implemented
The National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Critical and Strategic Mineral Supply Chains (now the Subcommittee on Critical Minerals) has taken steps to actively engage all relevant federal agencies in the Subcommittee's efforts and has clearly defined the roles and responsibilities of member agencies, as GAO recommended in September 2016. In November 2017, OSTP provided information indicating that on September 27, 2017, a total of 13 different agencies and subcomponents participated in a Subcommittee meeting, including the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, which GAO identified in its September 2016 report as not having been previously involved with the Subcommittee. Additionally, on June 4, 2019, the Department of Commerce, in coordination with the Subcommittee's member agencies, issued a report entitled "A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals." This strategy defines the roles and responsibilities of the member agencies for each of the 61 recommendations outlined in the strategy. The identification of the roles and responsibilities of the member agencies clarifies which agencies will do what and helps to organize their joint and individual efforts.
Office of Science and Technology Policy To enhance the ability of the Executive Office of the President to coordinate federal agencies to carry out the national materials policy outlined in the 1980 Act, and to strengthen the federal approach to addressing critical materials supply issues through enhanced interagency collaboration, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, working with the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Critical and Strategic Mineral Supply Chains and agency leadership, as appropriate, should develop joint strategies that articulate common outcomes and identify contributing agencies' efforts.
Closed - Implemented
As of June 2019, the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Critical and Strategic Mineral Supply Chains (now the Subcommittee on Critical Minerals) had implemented GAO's September 2016 recommendation to develop joint strategies that articulate common outcomes and identify contributing agencies' efforts. The interagency strategy entitled "A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals" articulates a series of common outcomes for the Subcommittee member agencies through its statement of 24 goals. Each goal is supported by a number of recommendations that identify the efforts of the contributing agencies. This articulation of common outcomes and identification of member agencies' efforts can help the Subcommittee better coordinate agencies' critical materials activities to ensure that they are mutually reinforcing.
Office of Science and Technology Policy To enhance the ability of the Executive Office of the President to coordinate federal agencies to carry out the national materials policy outlined in the 1980 Act, and to strengthen the federal approach to addressing critical materials supply issues through enhanced interagency collaboration, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, working with the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Critical and Strategic Mineral Supply Chains and agency leadership, as appropriate, should develop a mechanism to monitor, evaluate, and periodically report on the progress of member agencies' efforts.
Closed - Implemented
As of June 2019, the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Critical and Strategic Mineral Supply Chains (now the Subcommittee on Critical Minerals) had implemented GAO's September 2016 recommendation to develop a mechanism to monitor, evaluate, and periodically report on the progress of member agencies' efforts. The interagency strategy entitled "A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals" states that the strategy should be evaluated 5 years after issuance to determine the efficacy of the recommendations. Some of the strategy's recommendations also call for the relevant member agencies to provide periodic status updates to the Subcommittee. Using the interagency strategy as a mechanism to monitor and evaluate progress across the Subcommittee's efforts is an important step to ensure sustained progress toward achieving the Subcommittee's objectives.
Office of Science and Technology Policy
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
To enhance the ability of the Executive Office of the President to coordinate federal agencies to carry out the national materials policy outlined in the 1980 Act, and to broaden future applications of the early warning screening methodology, the Subcommittee should take the steps necessary to include potentially critical materials beyond minerals, such as developing a plan or strategy for prioritizing additional materials for which actions are needed to address data limitations.
Open
In September 2017, OSTP provided updated information on its efforts to implement recommendations from GAO-16-699. OSTP stated that "the Subcommittee shares GAO's interest in improving data availability and granularity. However, in some cases, private entities and foreign governments may be unwilling or unable to provide (or even collect) such data. Additionally, the Subcommittee member agencies' financial and personnel resources are limited, and significant additional resources would be required to prioritize and pursue the data for additional materials and critical materials beyond minerals. Without the appropriation of additional resources, the Subcommittee's work on these additional items will be necessarily circumscribed." In its February 2018 report on the updated application of the early warning screening methodology, the Subcommittee stated that it saw the value in analyzing more minerals and non-minerals to help inform policy decisions, but that fulfilling this need will require additional dedicated personnel and financial resources for data collection, analysis, and distribution. In March 2020, OSTP stated that the Subcommittee has explored the possibility of expanding the scope of the early warning screening methodology to include critical materials beyond minerals. According to OSTP, possible expansion candidates include carbon fiber and critical chemicals. OSTP stated that it has initiated a discussion with the Department of Interior (U.S. Geological Survey), who has been leading the methodology development, and the Department of Commerce (Bureau of Economic Analysis) with regard to possible data that would be needed for such an expansion. However, in August 2020, OSTP stated that while the expertise to expand data collection to additional materials of interest exists in the National Minerals Information Center (NMIC) at the U.S. Geological Survey, the capacity to expand beyond the current portfolio is not available due to budgetary constraints. In May 2021, OSTP stated that the Subcommittee is actively exploring opportunities to broaden its focus beyond the raw material and mineral challenges that have been its focus the past several years. OSTP also stated that federal agencies will work together through the Subcommittee to prioritize activities and to leverage efforts and limited resources. We will consider this recommendation implemented when OSTP works with Subcommittee member agencies to develop a plan to coordinate federal efforts and resources to address data limitations that hinder assessing potentially critical materials, in addition to minerals, in the screening methodology developed by Subcommittee member agencies.
Office of Science and Technology Policy To enhance the ability of the Executive Office of the President to coordinate federal agencies to carry out the national materials policy outlined in the 1980 Act, and to enhance the federal government's ability to facilitate domestic production of critical materials, the Subcommittee should examine approaches other countries or regions are taking to see if there are any lessons learned that can be applied to the United States.
Closed - Implemented
The National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Critical and Strategic Mineral Supply Chains (now the Subcommittee on Critical Minerals) has taken steps to examine the approaches of other countries or regions to find lessons learned that can be applied to the United States, as GAO recommended in September 2016. In February 2017, OSTP provided information on efforts to implement recommendations from GAO-16-699. OSTP stated that it concurred with the recommendation that the Subcommittee should examine approaches other countries or regions are taking to see if there are any lessons learned that can be applied to the United States. OSTP stated that the Subcommittee was sharing and discussing information on production in other regions, including a U.S.-led project (and other projects with U.S. involvement or support) under the Mining Task Force of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Subsequently, in August 2020, OSTP provided information that a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey, Geoscience Australia, the Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organization (Australia), the Canadian Geological Survey, and National Resources Canada had been initiated. OSTP stated that as major mining and mineral process jurisdictions with similar environmental and public health and safety requirements, Australia and Canada are well positioned to support U.S. efforts to develop best practices for the development of domestic resources. OSTP further stated that, in addition to this new initiative, ongoing engagement with the E.U. and Japan through existing critical mineral cooperative mechanisms are being further developed. This ongoing international cooperation and examination of other national approaches will allow the Subcommittee to identify opportunities to facilitate domestic production in United States.

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