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Rare Good News

Rare Good News

I have posted multiple times before about how worldwide “green” technology and a variety of high tech industries were dependent on “rare earth minerals” mined almost exclusively in China.  U.S. production was shut down almost a decade ago over environmental concerns.  Among other things, the Chinese had used this dominance to exert political pressure on Japan and others.

Now some rare, good news.  The U.S. mine which has been shut down over environmental concerns is reopening:

A major U.S. mine for rare earth metals has gone back into operation, adding a much needed source to offset China’s control of the unique group of materials necessary to build tech gadgets like smart phones and laptops.

Colorado-based Molycorp resumed active mining of the rare earth metal facility at Mountain Pass, California last week. The site had been shutdown in 2002 amid environmental concerns and the low costs for rare earth metals provided by mining operations based in China….

Molycorp, the owner of the Mountain Pass mine, is seeking to free the U.S. from it’s dependence on China for rare earth metals. By the end of 2012, the company is aiming to produce 20,000 tons of rare earths, likely enough to start meeting U.S. demand. Molycorp also plans on breaking ground to the construction of a new rare earths manufacturing facility at the site next month.

China, on the other hand, produced about 124,000 tons of rare earths in 2009, according to analysts reports. The country is also the biggest manufacturer of products that use the metals.

While the reopening of the mine certainly is good news, it’s hard to know if it solves the problem because, as reported by The Guardian, worldwide demand for rare earth minerals is expected to double in the coming decade. 

Since so much of our “green” technology actually is manufactured abroad, fulfilling domestic demand is good for the military and domestic high tech industries, but I’m not sure it addresses the issue of dependence on China for technologies which supposedly will help lessen our dependence on foreign oil.

Nonetheless, this is good news.  Which is rare these days.

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The other problem is this: getting that processing plant up-and-running will take time.

Sad fact: it was the GWB Administration which blew it in the first place, allowing PRChina to purchase the US processing facility (in Indiana) and then allowing PRChina to strip the plant bare and ship all the machinery to China.

This is good news vis a vis growth of an American industry, but fear of the Chinese hold on rare earth minerals seems to be much ado over nothing. Much like the chicken littles of the "peak oil" crowd, fear of rare earth mineral scarcity is unfounded. As demand rises, prices will rise and producers/miners will have more incentive to (re-)open mines. Moreover, the currently limited supply of these minerals does not account for technological advances in the future. Just as oil once thought to be too expensive and difficult to extract is now being tapped, minerals we now believe are unobtainable may prove otherwise as a rising profit potential spurs innovative mining solutions.

Dave, big difference between oil and rare earth. The oil "shortage" exists because the modern economy is predicated on not the availability of oil but the abundant availability of CHEAP oil. We are out of CHEAP oil which is the crux of the "peak oil" argument to which I subscribe.

The rare earth shortage is a man-made political shortage. While not rare, it does not exist in many places where it is of sufficient concentration to be mined profitably.

You are making the same mistake that most "drill baby drill" people make, you assume that it is all about price and allowing companies to drill. Peak oil became a serious issue once the USGS published its 5-year comprehensive study on the history and quantity of oil in the world that did not consider that 3rd world demand would explode just as the developed world was beginning to encounter the inevitable problem where growth of supply could keep up with growth of demand. That is true of just about every natural resource you can name. We are basically running out of everything if by "everything", you mean what we are willing or able to pay for it. (There is a severe shortage of 60-foot yachts in my household but I understand that I can own one if I am will to pay a few million dollars. Damn that price thing!)

If you really believe "peak oil" is a myth, I encourage you to become and "evil speculator" and short oil.

Isn't it amazing how anything that a "democrat" (socialist-progressive) administration does is wonderful with the leftist enclaves in environmentalism (feminism, etc.). Even in the other areas that leftists are vehement about, suddenly, we don't hear calls for trials for war crimes for the BO regime even though Gitmo is still open and we are still torturing war criminals (and now even targeting American citizens for drone attacks and who knows what else). Gee, you don't think they're not sincere about their "causes," do you?

@pasadenaphil The price of oil has only modestly increased in recent history once you adjust for inflation. Regardless, this doesn't account for the great leaps in fuel efficiency that rising prices have spurred. Prices do not increase in a static environment; technology adapts to the cost of fuel.

The same principle applies to rare earth minerals. If/when such elements are no longer "cheap" modern engineering will navigate around the cost obstacle by either using that component more efficently or developing an entirely new and different resource to exploit.

Don't lose too much sleep over "peak" anything. We'll manage as long as markets remain relatively free.

If we can ever get into space in a big way, this problem will be solved (there are really stupid amounts of rare earths, and everything else really, in metallic asteroids). Until then, it's still going to be a problem; the majority of Earth's rare earths are in the core, because they're heavier than the other elements, and the amount on the surface is just not enough to hold an industrial civilization for a particularly long time.

dad29 is correct. Without the manufacturing facility, the mine doesn't do much. That will take some time to be helpful.

Rare earths are used in nuclear fuel (the price spiked as soon as the Chinese stopped the first shipment to Japan) and all those fancy hybrid and electric car batteries that we subsidize in Michigan as well.