The Fuse

Watch: Untangling the U.S. Government’s Many Critical Minerals and Materials Lists

September 09, 2023

U.S. policymakers depend on several lists of critical minerals and materials to simplify the complex question of supply chain dependencies and help guide decisions that strengthen the United States’ national security, economic, energy, and other strategic goals. 

The minerals and materials on these lists are vitally important given how essential they are for many of society’s most important technological innovations: from semiconductors to solar panels and from smart phones to smart bombs.  

Given China’s increasing dominance of critical supply chains, these lists—and the processes that determine what gets included and what doesn’t—are vital to ensuring our long-term economic and national security. 

But how exactly do those lists get made? Who decides, and based on what criteria, which are critical minerals or materials, and which aren’t? Will these list change as geopolitical realities shift and U.S. strategic goals evolve? 

To answer these questions, SAFE’s Center for Critical Minerals Strategy brought together experts from the Department of the Interior, Energy, and Defense for a webinar that looked at—and sorted through—the U.S. government’s many critical minerals and materials lists.  

The goal: provide clarity about how various departments determine what gets included on these lists and how the different methodologies may change in the future, if at all. 

Watch the full webinar here:

The panel of experts—Steve Fortier, Director, National Minerals Information Center, US Geological Survey; Helena Khazdozian, Senior Advisor on Critical Minerals, Department of Energy; and David Pineault, Economist, DLA Strategic Materials, Department of Defense—laid out how their respective departments developed frameworks to assess the criticality of materials and minerals and whether they should be included on these various lists.

Some key takeaways from the panel discussion: 

  • While the criteria between agencies do overlap, and the lists are developed through an interdepartmental process, different departments’ missions influence how they evaluate criticality.

This is why multiple lists are necessary:

  • The Department of Interior (DoI) examines likelihood of foreign supply disruption, net import reliance, and the vulnerability of U.S. manufacturing to a supply disruption. DoI does not consider future demand or supply forecast. 
  • The Department of Energy’s framework is driven by five central pillars: diversifying supply, element substitution, enhancing efficiency, promoting a circular economy, and emphasizing cross-cutting functionality. Their list is forward-thinking and globally focused.
  • For the Department of Defense, the goal is to ensure the U.S. is ready for national emergency scenarios, therefore focusing on materials that are deemed essential to mounting a military defense of the country, followed by materials essential for civilian use. DoD’s list includes many (if not all) the same elements, it also includes subcategories of minerals that have defense-only uses. 
  • Comparing lists allows for a better understanding of which minerals and materials are critical for their application across different sectors, and which are critical due to their specialized applications.
  • Because no methodology is flawless and making a list is necessarily a simplification of an incredibly complex reality, having multiple lists minimizes errors in classification and allows for a more holistic picture. 

These lists are also constantly evolving. Follow SAFE’s Center for Critical Mineral Strategies and Center for Strategic Industrial Materials for more information, updates, and future webinars.