Rare White Paper Published on Rare Earths

China’s State Council on Wednesday issued its first white paper on the controversial rare-earth metal sector, hailing its developmental achievements but also acknowledging the environmental consequences of and promising tighter standards for its mining practices. China Daily published the full text of the document:

China is among the countries with relatively rich rare earth reserves. Since the 1950s, remarkable progress has been witnessed made in China’s rare earth industry. After many years of effort, China has become the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of rare earth products.

While bringing benefits to mankind, the exploitation of rare earth has brought about increasingly significant problems regarding this resource and the environment. In the exploitation and utilization of rare earth, the rational utilization and effective protection of the environment pose common challenges for the world at large. In recent years, China has taken comprehensive measures in the links of mining, production and exporting of rare earth goods and strengthened efforts for the protection of the resource and the environment, endeavoring to ensure a sustainable and healthy development of this industry.

With the in-depth development of economic globalization, China is involved in more extensive international exchanges and cooperation in the field of rare earth. Always honoring the rules and living up to its commitments, China has provided the world with large quantities of rare earth products. It will continue to follow the WTO rules, strengthen scientific management of this industry and supply rare earth products to the global market, so as to make its due contribution to the development and prosperity of the world economy.

For some time now, some countries have been particularly fretful about the situation of China’s rare earth industry and related policies, doing a lot of guesswork and conjuring up many stories. We hereby give a presentation about China’s rare earth industry in order to further provide the international community with a better understanding of this issue.

The white paper likely drew scrutiny from China’s trading partners, specifically the United States, European Union and Japan, who filed a WTO case in March to protest the export quota system China enforces on the rare earth industry. China defends its tight control over rare earth exports as a byproduct of its willingness to take on the environmental burden of extraction, and the white paper not only addressed the environmental angle extensively but also challenged foreign estimates of China’s reserves. Most importantly, but perhaps not surprisingly, it also gave no sign that China would lift export quotas. Xinhua reports that the chief of the Rare Earth Office said that China meets global market demand despite the export controls, while another official defended the policy in a news conference, according to The New York Times:

“The protection of the environment is never a pretext for gaining advantage or increasing economic returns,” Su Bo, a deputy minister of industry, said at a news conference in Beijing.

For The Diplomat, editor Jason Miks asks University of Connecticut specialist Nicholas Leadbeeater about the environmental dangers related to rare earth mining:

“I would say that the issue with rare earth mining is that the rare earth metals are in fact not all that rare, but they are found in small concentrations in ore and often found alongside things like uranium. Extraction of the rare earths from the ore is energy intensive and requires high temperatures as well as often needing significant quantities of hazardous chemicals like concentrated sulfuric acid,” he told me. “The extraction process results in a lot of waste, some of it radioactive due to the uranium and other radioactive elements in the ore alongside the rare earths. In addition to this are the other environmental and health concerns of mining large areas for ore.”

So, with this in mind, what does the future hold? According to Leadbeater, it’s “becoming increasingly obvious that, while rare earths are used in many ‘environmentally friendly’ applications such as hybrid cars, the supply of the key rare earths isn’t sustainable on a long term basis.”

This means, he says, that industry is looking for alternatives to the rare earth components, “be this a complete redesign of their technology or else a way to make components more efficient,” and so reducing the amount of rare earth required.