What China’s rare earth metal ban means for the West
If Beijing fulfils its threat, Europe and the US will need to diversify their supply
China is threatening an export ban on rare earth metals in response to Washington’s recent decision to impose restrictions on exports of high-end semiconductors to Beijing. This is not the first time that China has mooted such a ban, with rumours circulating since at least 2019 as well as formal threats in 2021.
If such a ban came into effect it could, in theory at least, be quite damaging. Rare earth metals are needed to produce the magnets that are used in everything from wind turbines to hard disk drives to electric vehicles. Everything from a smartphone to a Tesla has a substantial need for these elements, while US military technology is also dependent on them, with the F35 fighter jet requiring 417kg of rare earth metals.
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China is by far the largest producer of usable rare earth metals, accounting for 60% of rare earth mining, 85% of rare earth processing and 90% of high-strength rare earth permanent magnet manufacturing. Yet there are questions that arise about whether the sanctions would work. We have seen since sanctions were imposed on Russia last year how difficult it is to regulate commercially available technology. There is every chance that even if China banned exports of rare earth metals to the US, America could simply buy it through a third party — just as Europe is buying Russian oil via intermediaries in India.
The threats, however, are likely to push Western countries to find new sources of supply. Japan has already paved the way in this regard after the imposition, in 2010, of a two-month ban on rare earth exports from China. This followed a territorial dispute which broke out when Japan arrested a Chinese fishing boat captain near the contested East China Sea islands. The Japanese were then spurred to diversify the source of their rare earth metals and, as of today, they only import around 60% of their supply from China. Recently, Japan has been exploring the possibility of tapping into deep undersea reserves.
Diversifying the sources of rare earth metal purchases may prompt a renewed debate about the environmental consequences of rare earth metal processing, which creates toxic waste and has a high risk of causing damage to both the environment and to human health. These realities are embarrassing to those who advocate the use of technology like wind turbines and electric vehicles to save the environment. If China is no longer willing to do our dirty work, we may find ourselves with a national debate on the dangers and downsides of rare earth processing.
Ultimately, if China makes good on its threats, we should expect the price of rare earth metals to rise. Even if the sanctions do not work to prevent the US from gaining access to rare earth metals, they will likely lead to supply chain issues and rising costs. The same is true if we start to process these metals domestically. This means higher prices for Western consumers — and that includes everything from smartphones to green energy. Should Beijing’s threat be fulfilled, ramifications will be felt well beyond the corridors of Washington.
Just trying to wrap my head around this conundrum. China is threatening to restrict the sale of minerals that are in great abundance in areas outside its control, and will mostly be used in net-zero products that are completely unnecessary. And because we in the west are ruled by fools, the sanctions will likely be crippling. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.
The longer I live, the more I understand Nero. Time to buy myself a fiddle I think…..
‘Rare earths’ aren’t particularly rare (nor are they ‘earths’, but that ship sailed a century ago). They’re present in reasonable quantities in the tailings from many heavy metal mines. The reason they’re expensive is that they’re all very similar chemically, so separating them is difficult and involves a lot of aggressive (and potentially polluting) chemicals. So countries where environmental pollution is not considered high priority, such as China, have an advantage in their production, but that is all. If we were prepared to pay a bit more for them, they could be easily (and fairly swiftly) available.
North America has a lot of rare earth minerals, but it doesn’t have the political will to mine them.
That can easily be changed. The US used to be the world leader here a few decades ago. If it becomes profitable enough, I’m sure they can start again. These mines will be in pretty remote areas. The sooner, the better. It probably doesn’t take that long to set this stuff up, given the will. It’s mature, understood technology.
The one historic operating REE mine in the the US is at Mountain Pass, CA, just off of I-15 on the NV-CA border, not really that isolated. Everyone driving to and from Vegas to LA pass within a few hundred yards of it. As far as I know, REE ore from Mountain Pass has always been processed in China, as it is now. Mtn Pass ore occurs in carbonatite rocks and are radioactive. Further, it now takes a minimum of about 10 years to develop and permit any mine in the US, and REE mines will be no different.
Spot on. I imagine that the hazards can be mastered given incentive to do so (investment, money). But that takes will and time that China may not allow. A bit of future planning from leaders might help. Seems refiners want waivers in order to take the risk, but perhaps import controls along with price stability would make the investment in safety happen.
In addition, most rare earth deposits contain radioactive thorium and/or uranium, so waste from processing procedures are radioactive. Interestingly, REE sea-floor deposits typically do not contain Th or U.
Just another reason why the ban on the sale of ICE cars in the UK from 2030 isn’t going to happen.
It is going to happen because car manufacturers need about 5 years to change direction. I think that Jaguar said they were aiming for 2027, not 2030. The change will be a catastrophe.
This is the really fascinating issue when it comes to the restrictions on ICE vehicles. GM and Ford have invested nearly $60 billion in EV production in North America – shutting down ICE lines and building EV lines. What happens to that investment when no one buys EVs? This shift in production has been based on govt regulations, not market forces. So who’s responsible for the billions wasted on EV investment?
Taxpayers, of course.
We’ll still have plenty of used ICE cars that run fine. Banning new ICE cars doesn’t stop you driving older ICE cars. Not yet, anyway.
I’m actually hoping that China makes good on its threat. This will give us the political leverage to force the Democrats to start issuing mining permits to tap the plentiful US reserves of these minerals.
Another example how West allowed China to dominate so many critical areas of industry.
Author analogy with Russian export of oil via India etc is misguided.
Russia needs to sell oil to survive. China can stop exports to the West and control exports to third parties if it wants to.
Here in Australia the search for these minerals is ramping up big time, especially in Western and South Australia
Ironically, South Australia will struggle to do anything with them if they can even manage to get them out of the ground since they are so reliant on weather dependent energy sources.
Just another example of how economic sanctions can backfire in the long term, by diversifying supply and technology. The US should know all about this, if they were paying attention. At least now the US govt might have a way to back out of its ridiculous EV boondoggle.
Of course, the U.S., with the infinitely venal pushing by environmental groups will not open the vast lands of the west and Alaska to mining for such minerals. Take out gun, aim and shoot off big toe, it has a fungus.
Xi’s destruction of America being implemented by their crooked senile puppet Xiden is nearly complete.
Another fine example of the evils of protectionism.
The reason this is news is it supports the argument for supply-side inflation.
The dominant paradigm has been demand-side inflation which (possibly) could be addressed by the Fed raising interest rates.
Raising interest rates will not help supply-side inflation at all, in fact, it will probably make the situation worse.
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