Something that is termed rare in relation to earth seems by its very definition to be of import. According to the Rare Earth Technology Alliance, there are 17 elements that are considered to be rare earth elements—15 elements in the lanthanide series and two additional elements that share similar chemical properties.
This is right about when I started nodding off in chemistry class. The salivating Pavlovian response to the pulling down of the periodical charts. Those that understand these elements know that they are critical in many modern technologies, including consumer electronics, computers and networks, communications, clean energy, advanced transportation, health care, environmental mitigation, and national defense.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is acutely aware of this, as he perhaps symbolically paid a visit to one of China’s rare earth producing provinces this week. Anthony Marchese, chairman of Texas Mineral Resources Corp, which hopes to produce rare earth elements near El Paso, remarked, “To the people who follow the industry, to the Trump administration, they see the symbolism.” The tension between Washington and Beijing is certainly fueled in part by who will win the economic growth race, and as noted above, national defense is a key industry that relies on rare earth minerals. These trade issues go much deeper than headline news. This is literally and figuratively drilling to the core of the trade issue. Xi and Trump both understand this.
Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey designated 35 minerals as critical to the economy and national defense. The U.S. is almost entirely reliant on imports for more than half of them. In some ways it’s like the national debt, in that it is a problem, but one that doesn’t boil over enough to make it a real political or economic battle point. Interestingly enough, precedent has been set by former Chairman Deng Xiaoping in 1992, when he compared China’s role in the rare earth sector with the Middle East’s production of oil.
If you have ever wondered why pollution in China is so bad, you can trace it back to the production of rare elements. While perhaps draconian in measure, China took the lead in the world stage, as it had little concern for the environment. The production process is so brutal to the landscape that one can’t imagine it taking place in that scale in the U.S. With our values placed on nesting Sea Turtles and manatee’s, we stand zero chance entering this game.
Currently in the works, there is a proposal by Blue Line Corp. and Lynas Corp to build a plant in Hondo, Texas, near where Blue Line is based. There are no separation plants in the U.S. for either heavy or light rare earth materials after Molycorp Inc. sought chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2015. The dependence on China for rare earth minerals is troubling. It is highlighted now only because of trade wars, and will almost certainly sink back into the woodwork when issues resolve themselves. Consequently, like social security and the national debt, there are no solutions on the table.