March 17, 2010

(EXTRA) Spotlight on the Hill: Rare Earth Minerals and 21st Century Industry

Yesterday, I caught a webcast of the House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight hearing over Rare Earth Minerals and 21st Century Industry. A hearing I might feel more comfortable calling “Surprise! China has all the stuff: a rare earth tale.” Witnesses included: Dr. Stephen Freimann, retired Deputy Director of the Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology; Dr. Steven Duclos, Chief Scientist and Manager, Material Sustainability, GE Global Research; Dr. Karl A. Gschneider, Jr., of the Ames Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy; Mark Smith, Chief Executive Officer, Molycorp Minerals, LLC; and Terence Stewart, Managing Partner in the Law Offices of Stewart and Stewart.

Here are some of the important, though largely depressing, highlights:

*Disclaimer: I'm just highlighting what these panelists claimed; I'm not researching them or fact checking for the purpose of this post. We'll debate these perspectives and try to poke holes in the stats later among ourselves, maybe over St. Patrick's Day drinks.

  • China now holds a 90-97% majority in the global rare earth mineral market (depending on which witness you ask).
  • Rare earth minerals, due to their unique properties, are unable to be truly replaced in any one of the hundreds of modern applications they are used for (including missile guidance), without substantial investment in research.
  • That investment, according to GE witness Duclos, would come to the tune of $5-15 million, per element, per application. (emphasis mine)
  • Unless the need for rare earth minerals is changed, they may become increasingly critical to global development, and projections suggest that China may not be able to sustain even its own needs in the coming decades.
  • China may be violation of World Trade Organization provisions through its restrictive rare earth resource controls.
  • Witnesses supported the idea of a central government or University-based agency to aid in both research and projections to avoiding a future crisis through the collection of data. Data which, if started now, would be “10 years behind,” according to Congressman Bart Gordon (TN-D).
  • All of the witnesses agreed that sanctions against China would not help, only innovation.
  • None of the witnesses said that they really saw this coming.

A webcast of the event and written testimonies of all the witnesses can be obtained here.