It is time for the U.S. to stop panicking and start mining in the face of a possible shortage of “rare earth” mineral supplies from China, which dominates the global supply for the obscure minerals critical to the modern high-tech economy, according to market analysts and a growing number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“The first step in the supply chain is the mining,” said Jack Lifton, a founding principal of Technology Metals Research LLC, an Illinois-based research firm that tracks the rare earths market. “The United States should develop immediately what it does have. Stop looking already. Start producing the stuff, [and] stop talking about it.”
More than a half-dozen bills have been introduced in Congress to survey U.S. rare earth stocks and encourage domestic production, though none has made it into law.
So-called rare earth elements reside in the obscure far reaches of the periodic table, but the little-known materials such as cerium, yttrium and praseodymium are front and center in a broad range of sophisticated industrial and defense uses, including cellphones, pollution control devices, medical tissue research and laser pointers.
Although it has only 30 percent of the world’s estimated deposits, China supplies more than 95 percent of the global market for the 17 rare earth minerals and has been steadily dropping its export quotas in recent years. That dominance was worrying many before Beijing abruptly “suspended” exports to Japan last fall in the middle of an unrelated territorial dispute.
China in 2010 exported 32,000 tons of rare earth materials, even though international demand was estimated at 55,000 tons. With demand expected to rise again this year, China’s quota has fallen to 25,000 tons, and prices for many rare earth minerals are soaring.
Those moves have helped jump-start a black market for illegal mining of the rare earth materials, as well as proposals to stockpile the strategic material in Japan and the United States. More than a half-dozen bills have been introduced on Capitol Hill to deal with the problems of supply and demand.
Although U.S. producers have pushed for greater domestic production, private analysts caution that panic stories regarding shortages are exaggerated, and that simply prospecting broadly in hopes of competing with China in the short term isn’t the answer.
“The sky isn’t falling,” said Robert Jaffe, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The world is a big place, and many of these elements haven’t been looked for the way we have looked for oil.”
Mr. Jaffe said the day when global rare earth supplies are exhausted lies well into the future.
“Mine, baby, mine,’ is not the solution,” he said.
Mr. Jaffe and Mr. Lifton were part of a panel discussion last week at the American Enterprise Institute on the rare earths question. The analysts and researchers said it was past time for the federal government and Congress to craft a coherent approach to dealing with the problem.
Lawmakers in both parties have tried to address the issue.
Rep. Henry Johnson, Georgia Democrat, and Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a bill at the end of March calling for a three-year assessment of rare earth supplies to be conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado Republican, also introduced a bill last week that aims to boost rare earth mining operations and give the U.S. an edge in the industry. His Rare Earth Supply-Chain Technology and Resource Transformation bill would, among other items, direct federal agencies to expedite rare earth production permits, have the Defense Logistics Agency build a federal inventory through long-term supply contracts to boost domestic production, and offer federally backed loans to producers if private financing proves inadequate.
“Our nation must act to protect our security interests with regard to rare earth elements,” Mr. Coffman said in introducing his bill. “China is neither an ally of the United States nor is it a reliable trade partner when it comes to these strategic metals.”
The Coffman bill undoubtedly would benefit Colorado-based Molycorp Minerals, which is the largest U.S. supplier of rare earth elements. The company is hopeful that legislation will pass swiftly through Congress.
“The reality we are facing is that there will be shortages [of rare earth elements] in 2011 to 2013,” Molycorp spokesman Andy Davis told the AEI gathering. “Time is of the essence. The funding is definitely a challenge, [but] this is one of the few issues where you are not finding a blatantly partisan fight.”
The buzz about rare earth minerals has led Congress to ask Department of Defense officials to evaluate how much they rely on these elements and whether or not the shortage is an issue of national security, said Belva Martin, director of the acquisition and sourcing management team at the Government Accountability Office.
Many cutting-edge weapons systems rely on rare earths for their functionality, and alternatives are difficult to come by, Ms. Martin said. However, Mr. Lifton said the military’s use of rare earth elements is “relatively small.”
“The most important use of rare earths today are permanent magnets,” Mr. Lifton said. “The No. 1 application for rare earths is automotive uses. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
Despite their name, rare earth elements aren’t as hard to come by as many might think, said Cindy Hurst, an analyst with the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office.
“Indeed, rare earth elements aren’t rare,” she said. “They are found throughout the world’s crust.”
The chemical process of turning rare earth materials into a product to put on the market is where the difficulty lies, said Molycorp’s Mr. Davis. One reason China dominates the industry is because the country has more than 6,000 rare-earth technologists compared with a couple of dozen in the U.S.
Molycorp is working to keep the U.S. a player in the industry, with hopes of rivaling China’s production. The mining company recently acquired 90 percent of AS Silmet, a rare earth processing company based in Estonia, which will increase production significantly, Mr. Davis said.
But the U.S. faces major obstacles in challenging China’s pre-eminence, Mr. Lifton said.
“I don’t think we can produce these materials at a lower cost than they can be produced in China,” he said. “We are really in a pickle right now. You cannot re-create a supply chain in 15 minutes.”