Digging a deep hole: rare earths debacle puts U.S. trade policy under scrutiny

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Limiting the damage

Partly in response to recent government efforts to wean the U.S. off of Chinese supply, the Mountain Pass mine will reopen next year. Molycorp., the mine’s owner, says that it has cleaned up its act and will strive to be “environmentally superior.”

Brendan Cummings, the public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity, says he’s convinced. The Center for Biological Diversity protested the mine in the past, but Cummings says that they’re major concerns have been addressed by Molycorp.

“The main objection in the past, where the problems in the mine spilled out of the mine, was the pipeline,” said Cummings. “They’re no longer using the pipeline, and their new plan is to deal with the wastewater onsite.” The tailing ponds used for evaporation will now be lined, Cummings said, and there are better systems in place to monitor spillage.

Cummings readily acknowledged that rare earth mining was not a “clean” industry, but he also said that the process could easily be much cleaner than it has been in the past. Cummings added that rare earths mining required a “different calculus” than, say, coal mining, since rare earths are ultimately desirable for their uses in  green technology.


See no evil, hear no evil

So, if rare earth mining can be done in a way that minimizes its environmental footprint, and if the government deems it a desirable industry, why hasn’t the U.S. promoted the production of rare earths in the past?

Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research claimed that, as it stands now, “We are so far behind the eight-ball that we have to re-learn how to produce this stuff.”

“This really, clearly points to one of the big difficulties of our abandoning trade and industrial policy in favor of open world markets,” said Lisa Margonelli, director of the Energy Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation.

Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, agrees, calling the controversy around rare earths “emblematic of the fact that we did not have an industrial policy or an innovation policy.

So does Ed Richardson, vice president of Thomas and Skinner, an Indianapolis producer of permanent magnets.

“This is just one example of how the United States has lost a capability that it used to have,” he said. By believing that “global free trade will provide all the answers that we need in terms of an industrial policy,” Richardson continued, “we made a big mistake.”

Jack Lifton, co-founder of the consulting firm Technology Metals Research, says the irony is that China is simply following the model that the U.S. set out for them.

The Chinese “did exactly what we asked them to do,” Lifton said. “They started low-cost manufacturing using raw materials they could also produce at the lowest cost.”

“The capitalists in New York were popping champagne, saying, ‘We have achieved low cost!’” Lifton continued, “And now the Chinese are saying, ‘Phase two: we’re going to be the supplier, you guys can go out of business, and the capitalists in New York are saying, ‘Oh, you evil people.’ It’s completely ridiculous.”

According to Scott, Margonelli and Appelbaum, by focusing on price alone, the U.S. allowed the market to determine the value of crucial components like rare earths.

 “We made price the only criteria for where we would buy it, and we did not think about our national interests or our competitiveness going forward,” said Appelbaum.

“The way of thinking that came in in the 90’s was that you let the market do the work of apportioning the security of the commodities, and so if the price was cheap, you felt that the supply was secure,” added Margonelli. “So it was hands-off on the part of the government.”

“There’s a real question of whether we allow our whole trade policy and industrial policy in the U.S. to be driven by price, or do we think more in terms of what’s strategic and what do we need to have here,” she went on.


Other countries’ approaches to “critical materials”
Nation Business policy Research and development policy
  • Funding for international mineral exploration
  • Loan guarantees for high-risk mineral projects
  • Stockpiling
  • Information gathering
  • Substitution research funding through METI and MEXT
  • Exploration, excavation, refining and safety research founded through JOGMEC
  • Mineral trade policy for open international markets*
  • Information gathering*
  • Land permit streamlining*
  • Increased recycling regulations*
  • Increased material efficiency in applications
  • Identification of material substitutes
  • Improve end-of-life product collection and recycling processes
  • Government-industry collaboration on material policy through M2i Institute
  • Substitutes of abundant for renewable materials
  • Processes for recycling depleted materials
  • Study consumption patterns as a result of policy
  • Taxes and quotas on REE exports
  • Prohibition of foreign companies in REE mining
  • Industry consolidation
  • Unified pricing mechanisms*
  • Production quotas
  • Moratorium on new mining permits until mid-2011
  • Rare earth separation techniques and exploration of new rare earth functional materials
  • Rare earth metallurgy; optical, electrical, and magnetic properties of rare earths; basic chemical sciences of rare earths
  • Low tax on the value of extracted resources
  • High tax on mine profits
  • Tax rebates for mineral exploration
  • Fast turnaround for land permit applications
  • Promote sustainable development practices in mining
  • Promote recycling industry and incorporate recycling as part of product design
  • Require accountability in environmental performance and mineral stewardship
  • Use life-cycle-based approach to mineral management and use
  • Provide comprehensive geosciences information infrastructure
  • Promote technological innovation in mining processes
  • Develop value-added mineral and metal products

* proposed policy

Source: U.S. Department of Engergy, Critical Materials Strategy, December 2010

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