China Tightens Grip on Rare Minerals

The New York Times follows up on reports that China is planning to further tighten export quotas of rare earth minerals that are necessary to build a broad range of technologies:

China currently accounts for 93 percent of production of so-called rare earth elements — and more than 99 percent of the output for two of these elements, vital for a wide range of green energy technologies and military applications like missiles.

Deng Xiaoping once observed that the Mideast had oil, but China had rare earth elements. As the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has done with oil, China is now starting to flex its muscle.

Even tighter limits on production and exports, part of a plan from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, would ensure China has the supply for its own technological and economic needs, and force more manufacturers to make their wares here in order to have access to the minerals.

In each of the last three years, China has reduced the amount of rare earths that can be exported. This year’s export quotas are on track to be the smallest yet. But what is really starting to alarm Western governments and multinationals alike is the possibility that exports will be further restricted.

Meanwhile, plans are afoot to reopen the shuttered Mountain Pass rare earth mine in California, the world’s largest, to challenge China’s monopoly in the industry, Reuters reports:

Seeking to replace China as the leading supplier of these scarce materials, Colorado-based Molycorp Minerals LLC plans to reopen its long-idled quarry to resume extracting and refining thousands of tons of rare earth ore in the next few years.

Last month, Molycorp reached a joint venture deal with Arnold Magnetic Technologies Corp. of Rochester, New York, to make “permanent” magnets from rare metals at Mountain Pass.

Backed by hundreds of millions of dollars from equity investors, including Goldman Sachs, Molycorp aims to avert a looming rare-earths supply crunch that threatens to muffle the green-technology boom.

August 31, 2009 10:08 PM
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