September 27, 2010

World Scrambles for Strategic Resources
September 27, 2010 | From
Just because you can’t pronounce their names doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.
Scandium, yttrium and lanthanum don’t sound like components of items used every day. Yet the world is gradually waking up to a growing shortage of such minerals that are vital to today’s technical marvels.
There is a very real danger. “The impending clashes will concern almost-unknown minerals, and the world’s consumer nations are realizing this with some alarm,” writes the Times.
Rare earth metals (elements with an atomic number between 57 and 71, plus scandium and yttrium) are of vital importance to modern technology. The Economist explains: 

They are used, a pinch here and a pinch there, to make powerful permanent magnets for lightweight electric motors, phosphors for color television and flat-panel displays, catalysts for cars and chemical refineries, rechargeable batteries for hybrid and electric cars, generators for wind turbines, as well as numerous optical, medical and military devices. To give just one example, every Toyota Prius has over 25 pounds of lanthanum in its nickel-metal hydride battery. 

Yet 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth metals come from China. And now China is selling less. Since the 1960s, the Chinese government has seen rare earth metals as “the oil of the 21st century.”
“We are at economic war,” said Jack Lifton, an expert on rare minerals. “The world where you could get everything for a price is history. And the West has been sound asleep on this. The level of ignorance about the upstream of mineral supply … is just out of this world.” 

Over the past year, China has reduced its exports of rare earths. They shrank from 50,000 tons per year to 30,000 tons. Then in July, the government announced it would export only 8,000 tons for the rest of year.
Even if China didn’t limit its exports, the world would have a problem. Global demand for these metals was 134,000 tons last year. Only 124,000 tons were produced. Unless things change, existing stockpiles will soon run out. The Economist continues to describe the problems of supplying these vital elements:
The problem is that, though widely dispersed, the rare earth elements occur in extremely low concentrations. Only a handful or so places exist—in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, South Africa and the United States—where deposits have been found rich enough to justify mining them. Even then, abundance in their host minerals is usually measured in concentrations of a percent or two. 

Extracting these minerals is difficult. One of the reasons China leads production is its low wages, and also its low environmental standards. 

The largest supplier of rare earth metals used to be in California, but the plant was shut down in 2002. It didn’t run out of minerals—it’s just cheaper to mine them in China. California’s tough environmental laws make it hard for the mine to open again. 

But if the U.S. has rare earth minerals, does it need to worry about the shortage of these metals? In the long term, no. But in the short term, it is a major problem. In July, the Congressional Research Service said that developing new rare-earth mining projects could take 10 years. 

Governments around the world are vying to obtain these vital resources. South Korea, for example, said that when giving aid, the nation should focus on countries with rare metals. It said in August that it would use the nation’s pension and sovereign funds to secure these metals. 

A recent EU report warned that land grabs could erupt as nations scramble for these minerals.
China has been planning for this since the 1960s, but the U.S. hasn’t. “The West has woken up late to the idea that these metals have a strategic importance. In the supposed boom of the 1990s … mining was a non-issue and everyone wanted to diversify away from something seen as dirty and old. Suddenly it matters again,” said policy analyst at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies, Jaakko Kooroshy

Naturally, the U.S. Army is just as dependent on these resources as consumers are. The shortage of these minerals represents a security threat as well as an economic one. For more information, see our article “Minerals: Crumbling Bedrock of U.S. Security.”