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Medium-Rare

June 20, 2011

Ed Morrissey has a post this morning on Hot Air that highlights China’s growing control of the rare-earth mineral market. Here’s his opening.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about the risks of dependence on foreign resources that will come with the “green” energy revolution, at least in the direction favored by the Obama administration.  Elements required for critical components such as lithium batteries for electric cars cannot be found in massive quantities within the US, and a number of the rare-earth elements needed for these components are mainly found in China — which can be fairly described as an economic competitor of the US at the very least.  Today’s report from the Financial Times should drive that point home and send up red flags on “green” mandates, both literally and figuratively…

And I agree.  Right now, China has a hold on the rare-earth mineral market, and we’re paying them to sell to us… at an ever- increasing price.  However, I think Ed is missing one point.  He says that the minerals are difficult to find in the US, which isn’t exactly true.  Here’s the latest USGS report on the topic.

World Resources:

Rare earths are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, but discovered minable concentrations are less common than for most other ores. U.S. and world resources are contained primarily in bastnäsite and monazite. Bastnäsite deposits in China and the United States constitute the largest percentage of the world’s rare-earth economic resources, while monazite deposits in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the United States constitute the second largest segment. Apatite, cheralite, eudialyte, loparite, phosphorites, rare-earth-bearing (ion adsorption) clays, secondary monazite, spent uranium solutions, and xenotime make up most of the remaining resources. Undiscovered resources are thought to be very large relative to expected demand. A very large resource enriched in heavy rare-earth elements is inferred for phosphorites of the Florida Phosphate District.

The US actually has quite a bit of rare-earth minerals in place.  So what’s up?  Well, maybe the first place you should check is our environmental lobby… which isn’t all that enthused about the costs.  So when the press is already starting to swing away, how do you justify actual mining of US resources?

Here’s another comprehensive article from the Journal of Energy Security, that shows how we’ve given up actual processing capacity already.

The West has now been essentially denuded or contrarily has denuded itself of almost all its rare earth mine-to-market supply and value chains. Only some of the final assembly of permanent magnet using devices such as DC electric motors and electric generators for civilian use remain anywhere outside of China today. The US military and the allies it equips require that the final manufacture and assembly of all munitions or guidance devices and components be within the US or in an allied country such as the UK. Even so, rare earth metals — from which military components such as permanent magnet electric motors and generators, lasers, and infrared and sonar sensors are constructed all or in part — are exclusively imported from China and then alloyed and fabricated in the US or in another allied military contractor’s country.

So Ed’s correct in the fact that the US is not currently processing or mining any of its resources.  But we do have a wealth of minerals available here, and we’ve chosen not to mine them.  Honestly this might not be all that bad for now.  When the market for this goes crazy at a later date, maybe we’ll have the ability to start mining then.  We’ll just be years behind, covered in regulation, and wholly dependent on an unfriendly ally for what we need until then.

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