U.S. reliance on critical energy materials from foreign countries and developing a reliable domestic supply of those same resources will be the main focus of a new congressional caucus organized by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Livermore) and other elected officials, according to a statement issued by the Tri-Valley congressman last week.
The Congressional Critical Materials Caucus -- co-chaired by Swalwell and Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Penn.) -- aims to "help the United States develop the technical expertise and production capabilities to assure a long-term, secure and sustainable supply of energy critical elements (ECEs)" as well as educate other congressional leaders and the public about the matter.
“This caucus is a crucial step towards ensuring a reliable domestic supply of ECEs and rare earth elements,” Swalwell said in a statement.
"By bringing attention to the United States’ reliance on foreign countries for ECEs, we can educate other Members of Congress and the general public about the need to source these elements domestically for long-term success and growth," Swalwell added.
Many advanced technologies are manufactured using ECEs including cellphones, laptops, solar panels, jet engines, gas and wind turbines, and nuclear reactors.
An ECE shortage "could significantly impede Americans’ ability to afford and use these technologies, and would hurt both our global competitiveness and our national security," according to Swalwell's office. With China producing 80% of the world's rare earth elementary supply (and 75% of permanent magnets containing those elements), the U.S. has become dependent on importing many of the elements.
Swalwell noted the consequences of heavy dependence on other countries for such resources like when China temporarily halted exports of rare earth materials to the U.S., European Union and Japan in 2010.
A limited-term Critical Materials Institute was established by the U.S. Department of Energy several years later but the organization nor any ongoing ECED research program has been formally authorized.
Capping off the week, Swalwell and Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) introduced a bipartisan bill that would forgive students loans for public employees whose jobs have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program cancels any remaining student loan debt for qualified borrowers after they have made 120 monthly payments while working full-time in public service. However, if borrowers lose their job or are furloughed, any payments that follow after would not count toward the loan forgiveness.
“Many doctors, nurses, teachers and other public employees have had their jobs impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Swalwell said. “We made a deal that their public service could be rewarded with forgiveness of their student loans, and we should honor that deal no matter what – especially if the pandemic has thrown their livelihoods for a loop.”
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act extended some relief to all federal student loan borrowers by temporarily suspending payments from March 13 through Sept. 30. Participants in the PSLF program may count qualified payments towards their mandatory total during that period, except if they temporarily lose their jobs during the pandemic.
Under Swalwell's "Protecting Access to Loan Forgiveness for Public Servants During the COVID-19 Pandemic Act", workers could continue to count their payments towards forgiveness under the PSLF program, so long as they are back at their public service job within six months of the end of the pandemic. The Secretary of Education would be required to "develop and make available guidance for those who are eligible for this emergency job disruption assistance.
Another bill, the Strengthening Loan Forgiveness for Public Servants Act, was re-introduced by Swalwell last year. The bill would allow new PSLF participants to defer eligible loans while working in public service and receive forgiveness "in proportion to their years of public service." The companion bill was introduced in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).