July 15, 2009

Rare Earths and the Challenge for American Energy Security

“They are the backbone of the Information Age and, potentially, the clean energy  future. They are in iPods, Blackberrys, and plasma TVs. They are powerful and compact; they are exceedingly efficient. In many cases, there are no substitutes for them,” writes Kent Garber in a July 1, 2009, U.S News Weekly special report. “They” are rare earth elements. And they are “America’s new dependency.”  And much like oil and other resource dependencies, our reliance on rare earth minerals will play a significant role in U.S national security.

“Today, China provides nearly 97 percent of the world’s supply,” Garber reports. “It has a near monopoly. And it is cutting exports.” Since the early 1990s, China has been cornering the market on rare earth minerals, developing its domestic stockpile while making large investments in foreign mines to gain control of these deposits, including in Malaysia, Brazil and Australia.

The United States used to produce rare earth minerals. In fact, as Garber writes, Mountain Pass mine in California use to be the “world’s leading supplier of europium,” the mineral that creates the red in color televisions. But today, that mine has closed, leaving the “United States with no active rare-earth mine,” and relying on foreign imports to satisfy its burgeoning demand for these materials.

“The world’s demand for rare-earth metals is expected to grow at least 10 percent annually,” says Garber, while China, the leading supplier, continues to cut exports: from 60,000 tons in 2002 to a projected 30,000 tons in 2009. The decline in exports may be partly attributed to China’s shrinking global reserves of rare earth minerals – down from 88 percent of global reserves a decade ago, to 52 percent today.  And with China cutting its exports, “It could seriously crimp President Obama’s energy agenda,” Garber warns, igniting competition and raising global prices for these materials that will be essential for new energy technologies.
To boot, China is positioning itself to dominate in renewable energy technologies, utilizing its domestic stock of rare earth minerals as it grows its market share of technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines. Keith Bradsher of The New York Times writes that “China has built the world’s largest solar panel manufacturing industry by exporting over 95 percent of its output to the United States and Europe.”

If and when the United States moves forward with a new energy economy, it will rely heavily on rare earths to manufacture turbines, high-efficiency batteries and other clean energy technologies. This of course means that any forward progress the United States will make using current technologies to produce clean energy will depend on our supply chain of rare earth minerals – either by maintaining sustainable access to Chinese rare earths, diversifying our supply (despite China having a preponderance of known global reserves) or renewing domestic mining for our own deposits.
President Obama has made clear that our energy future is inextricably linked to our national security. And because our energy future is tied into our dependence on rare earths, it takes little stretch of the imagination to see how much our national security will depend on rare earth minerals.