EU-US to collaborate on ‘rare earths’

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The US Congress and the European Parliament could hold parallel hearings and produce a joint communiqué on crucial raw materials as part of efforts to cooperate on areas of strategic interest, according to a senior Washington policymaker.

Congressman Bart Gordon, chairman of the Committee on Science & Technology of the House of Representatives, wants parliamentarians on both sides of the Atlantic to identify common ground on rare earth minerals, which are vital for green technologies.

Gordon told the European Parliament's committee on industry, research and energy (ITRE) that China's near-monopoly on key raw materials is "very troubling" and could hamper advances in alternative energy and telecoms products.

He proposed holding parallel hearings in Brussels and Washington, which could lead to information sharing on mineral supplies and a united EU-US approach to the issue at the World Trade Organisation.

American and European researchers could also collaborate more closely to find substitute minerals, improve recycling and ensure natural resources are used efficiently.

The US is currently revising its national materials policy and may be willing to add amendments to the US Rare Earths Bill, which would formalise the need for international cooperation, provided that the EU responds positively to Gordon's overtures.

Rare earths could be 'template' for cooperation

Collaboration on rare earths could be a template for further cooperation in areas such as intellectual property, cyber security, clean water, energy security and carbon capture and storage (CCS), according to the congressman.

"We have a long-standing bond, cultural similarities and are facing common challenges. When friends work together they strengthen one another," said Gordon.

He added that the chairpersons of other House of Representatives committees would be willing to look at how they can work more closely with MEPs, particularly in light of the new powers conferred on the European Parliament by the Lisbon Treaty.

The US Congress has some experience of joint initiatives on strategic technical issues having recently completed parallel hearings on geo-engineering with a UK parliamentary committee.

Gordon said some of his staff would stay on in Brussels for a few days to help kick-start the proposed cooperation on rare earths.

Closer ties on the 'new nanotechnology'

Gordon, a 13-term congressman from Tennessee, said another area ripe for cooperation is the emerging field of synthetic biology. This, he said, promises breakthroughs in medicine and alternative energy.

He compared the potential of synthetic biology to nanotechnology but warned that transparency will be key to earning public support for advances in this area.

Gordon said the EU and US must work together to develop a body of research on the safety of the manufacture and use these new technologies. He said better communication can help avoid a re-run of the problems with genetically-modified foods, where American and European consumers hold fundamentally different views.

"In fact, if we have started talking about SWIFT earlier we might not have got to where we are today," Gordon added, referring to the row over exchange of personal data.

EU-US 'science diplomacy'

Links between the EU and US on technology issues have been deepening since last year, with MEPs noting a "change in tone" from the Obama administration.

In October, Obama's chief science advisor John Holdren will visit Brussels for the Caneus EU event, where he will discuss cooperation in the area of aerospace and the EU framework programme. He is also expected to meet with MEPs.

Separately, there are also talks between parliamentarians on developing a common method for measuring the impact of science funding (EURACTIV 19/04/10).

To read the interview with Gordon in full, please click here.

German MEP Herbert Reul (European Peoples' Party), chair of the European Parliament committee on Industry, Research and Entergy (ITRE), said Europe and the US share common problems in a range of areas including energy, standardisation, and intellectual property and inter-parliamentary collaboration can help head of looming challenge.

"It would be very wise if parliamentarians cooperated a little more at an interparliamentary level," he said. "We must see how we can institutionalise these cooperations."

German Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer said the proposed joint hearings on rare earths are a "very important and timely" step in an area of great strategic importance. Shale gas and nanotechnology could also be considered for future collaboration, he said.

He described Congressman Gordon as 'trailblazer' for closer cooperation on science and technology. Bütikofer welcomed Mr Gordon's recognition that the Lisbon Treaty had made the European Parliament "a strong player on a range of issues" and called for a clear political signal that parliamentarians are willing to collaborate across several committees in Brussels in Capitol Hill.

He said there needs to be a "go to" person on each committee responsible for transatlantic cooperation, and suggested developing staff exchanges as a means of deepening ties.

Bütikofer also said he hopes the US Congress will establish an office in Brussels just as the European Parliament has.

Italian MEP Antonio Cancian (EPP) said cooperation between parliamentary committees can be "very useful". He said Brussels should seek more cooperation with the US and the two legislatures should seek to align their work on key topics.

German MEP Angelika Niebler (EPP) said she was pleased by the prospect of deeper transatlantic cooperation. However, she expressed disappointment that Europe's efforts to build the European Research Area (ERA) were not well understood in the US.

Greek MEP Niki Tzavela (EFD), who heads the European Parliament delegation to the US, said there was a great deal of interest in what she called "solid cooperation" between parliaments.

She said the ITRE committee welcomed Congressman Gordon's proposal and said cooperation between committees is "usually good but is not always followed up". Tzavela said it was important to spell out the next steps to ensure the initiative does not fall by the wayside.

China is responsible for 95% of global rare earth production and about 60% of consumption currently originates from there, according to the US Geological Survey, a federal agency.

Experts have warned that Beijing's plan to ban exports of key raw materials as of 2015 should cause concern among manufacturers of high-tech products ranging from computers to electric car batteries and wind turbines (EURACTIV 11/6/10).

In November 2009, the European Commission set up an expert group which began screening a list of thirty-nine "potentially critical" raw materials whose availability to industry could come under threat as global competition for natural resources intensifies (EURACTIV 01/12/09).

The group singled out 14 raw materials seen as "critical" for EU high-tech and eco-industries and suggested that the European Union's global diplomacy should be geared up to ensure that companies gain easier access to them in future (EURACTIV 18/6/10).

  • October: John Holdren, chief science advisor to US President Barack Obama, to visit Brussels.

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