Rare-earth minerals & peak-oil: shortages or fallacies?

rare earth mineralsUPDATE Oct 28, 2010: “The Chinese government on Thursday abruptly ended its unannounced export embargo on crucial rare earth minerals to the United States, Europe and Japan, four industry officials said” to the New York Times. Business Insider notes with humor that this occurred on the same day a new rare-earth ETF (REMX) opened.

In recent months, there’s been a flurry of concern — even from the feckless Congress — that China is cornering the world market on rare-earth minerals (such as cesium, neodymium, lanthanum, and scandium), which are critical components of a variety of high-tech and “green” products, plus weapons. In the past week it was announced that China is cutting-back exports of these minerals, to save more for its own industries, ensure it doesn’t run out of the materials, and to raise prices on its current exports.

While Japan is currently feeling the pinch of the recent 30% cutback in rare-earth exports, Space Daily reports that this cutback is just the latest in a series: “Since 2006, China has cut export quotas on rare earths by five to 10 percent a year.” In other words, this was a train whose headlight has been visible for a long time. Yet, “‘It’s amazing how this issue seems to have caught the country off guard,’ said U.S. Representative Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican,” to Bloomberg.com.

You’d think this is another major crisis — the news media seems to think it is — and perhaps for a few years, it will be for some industrial consumers who are used to getting unlimited supplies of raw materials at cheap prices. But just as there seems to be more oil available when the per-barrel price rises high enough to justify extracting it, it appears there will be enough rare-earth minerals available thanks to China’s artificially restricting the supply.

While China currently supplies about 97% of the world’s production of rare-earth metals, it doesn’t have a stranglehold on supply. According to The Epoch Times,

China and the United States control 37 percent and 15 percent of the global rare earth reserve, respectively. Until the end of the 1980s, the United States was the leader in global rare earth production. But by 2000, China’s rare earth supplies took over the global market due to low extraction and environmental protection costs.

And somehow, the Pentagon never successfully got Congress’ attention to produce the rare-earth equivalent of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Even more surprising, says Bloomberg.com, “Since 1994 the Pentagon has sold off excess raw materials for $7 billion.”

It’s the peak-oil myth all over again: now that China is reducing the supply and thereby raising the price of rare earths, it has become economically feasible for U.S.-based Molycorp, Inc. to become an alternate supplier. The Wall Street Journal writes:

Molycorp’s mine in California was once the world’s largest rare-earth producer, before facilities were closed in 2002 during a pricing downturn and after an industrial accident. Now, Molycorp is ramping up again and hopes to begin mining next year to produce 20,000 metric tons of rare-earth oxides by late 2012.

In fact, Molycorp expects to emerge as one of China’s largest competitors. The growing concerns about the country’s export policies are benefiting Molycorp’s business, partly because prices of the elements it has on reserve are surging.

Molycorp raised $379 recently by selling stock, whose value has continued to soar since the July sale The fly in the ointment: Molycorp can mine the land it owns, but as yet can’t process the raw extracts into finished metals in the United States. That will require additional investment and partnerships. Currently, says LiveScience.com, Molycorp “still has to ship its rare earths to China for final processing, because only China currently has the equipment needed for the job.”

Then there’s the age-old, secondary means of supply: the black market. Though China is officially restricting exports of rare-earth minerals, “Chinese businessmen engaged in the production of rare earth metals have revealed that the amount smuggled out of China could total approximately 40 percent of the legal export quota.”

So, while it appears manufacturers will likely experience hiccups in supply and have to pass along inflated rare-earth prices to consumers, there appears to be little likelihood that we’re actually running out of these minerals. An article in Slate points out that the known reserves of “most commercially important minerals have increased over time:

In 1950, for example, the USGS estimated global reserves of zinc at 77 million tons. Yet exploration and improved mining techniques allowed humans to dig up more than 293 million tons of the stuff over the next half-century. In 2000, the government announced that zinc reserves were up to 209 million tons. Tin, copper, iron ore, and lead have all experienced similar increases. In 1970, researchers thought we had only 30 years of oil left. By 1990, the estimate had risen to 40 years, where it has remained. While many believe oil could one day become commercially nonviable, few in the industry think all the wells will have run dry by 2050.

Resource exhaustion used to be a hot topic among economists. Thomas Robert Malthus predicted in 1798 that land shortages would lead to famine and population collapse. In 1865, William Stanley Jevons predicted that Britain would soon run out of coal, bringing the economy crashing down, and others soon joined the gloomy chorus. These days, though, few economists lose sleep over the prospect of absolute exhaustion of any particular resource.

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