China is set to tighten its hammerlock on the market for some of the world’s most obscure but valuable minerals.
China currently accounts for 93 percent of production of so-called rare earth elements — and more than 99 percent of the output for two of these elements, dysprosium and terbium, vital for a wide range of green energy technologies and military applications like missiles.
Deng Xiaoping once observed that the Mideast had oil, but China had rare earth elements. As the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has done with oil, China is now starting to flex its muscle.
Even tighter limits on production and exports, part of a plan from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, would ensure China has the supply for its own technological and economic needs, and force more manufacturers to make their wares here in order to have access to the minerals.
In each of the last three years, China has reduced the amount of rare earths that can be exported. This year’s export quotas are on track to be the smallest yet. But what is really starting to alarm Western governments and multinationals alike is the possibility that exports will be further restricted.
Chinese officials will almost certainly be pressed to address the issue at a conference Thursday in Beijing. What they say could influence whether Australian regulators next week approve a deal by a Chinese company to acquire a majority stake in Australia’s main rare-earth mine.
The detention of executives from the British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto has already increased tensions.
They sell for up to $300 a kilogram, or up to about $150 a pound for material like terbium, which is in particularly short supply. Dysprosium is $110 a kilo, or about $50 a pound. Less scare rare earth like neodymium sells for only a fraction of that.
(They are considerably less expensive than precious metals because despite the names, they are found in much higher quantities and much greater concentrations than precious metal.)
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has drafted a six-year plan for rare earth production and submitted it to the State Council, the equivalent of the cabinet, according to four mining industry officials who have discussed the plan with Chinese officials. A few, often contradictory, details of the plan have leaked out, but it appears to suggest tighter restrictions on exports, and strict curbs on environmentally damaging mines.
Beijing officials are forcing global manufacturers to move factories to China by limiting the availability of rare earths outside China. “Rare earth usage in China will be increasingly greater than exports,” said Zhang Peichen, the deputy director of the government-linked Baotou Rare Earth Research Institute.
Some of the minerals crucial to green technologies are extracted in China using methods that inflict serious damage on the local environment. China dominates global rare earth production partly because of its willingness until now to tolerate highly polluting, low-cost mining.
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