Rare earth minerals put Idaho in the middle of U.S. China relations

The need for rare earth minerals like neodymium could define the relationship between the United States and China and elevate Idaho into a critical role in the nation’s industrial future.

China currently supplies 97 percent of these critical minerals that have properties that make them important for superconductors, magnets, and lasers used in wind generators, cells phones and military hardware. China’s own phenomenal growth has prompted officials there to suggest there may be a time when it will be forced to cut off exports.

They could make those decisions for political reasons as well.

This was highlighted recently when China briefly halted shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan’s high technology industries after Japan arrested a Chinese fishing boat captain in the contested waters. China officially denied that any embargo had taken place but since the embargo was revealed, shipments have resumed.

That got attention on Capitol Hill last week and Boeing has announced it is seeking to secure its own supply of these strategic metals. It happens that Idaho appears to be one of the few places where these metals occur in minable quantities.

Washington Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell chaired an Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy hearing last week where experts testified that the limited supplies of 17 minerals like neodymium, samarium, promethium, and europium could limit U.S. technological advancement and economic growth.

Fifteen years ago, the United States was the world’s largest producer of rare earth minerals. But the last major rare earth mine in the U.S. was closed in 2002. Last year China produced more than 97 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals even though it has only 36 percent of the world’s reserves.

The U.S. holds about 13 percent, and the rest is distributed in other countries. That worries wind and solar companies, which are competing directly with Chinese companies, which are getting unusual support and capital from the Chinese government.

“The loss or disruption of the rare earth metals supply would be catastrophic…in terms of price spikes, production volume and related supply chain disruptions that would drastically limit our ability to develop and manufacture our products,” said Peter Brehm Vice President of Business Development of Kennewick, Wash.-based Infinia, which manufactures solar power generators.

Cantwell wants the federal government to help potential producers of rare earth minerals and strategic minerals like cobalt so they can get into production and ensure supplies. That brought another Idaho mining company into the spotlight, the Formation Capital, which wants to open a cobalt mine near Salmon.

“While demand for cobalt increases globally, the supply continues to be controlled by an exclusive group of countries or foreign companies that may not be friendly to the U.S. or are politically unstable,” testified Preston Rufe, environmental manager for the U.S. subsidiary of the Canadian company.

One of the few companies’ actively seeking rare earths in the U.S. has found deposits near Lemhi Pass, the North Fork of the Salmon River and Diamond Creek in the same area around Salmon. U.S. Rare-Earths signed a contract with Boeing in September to use the corporate giant’s technology to confirm and map its rare earth deposits.

“Boeing's technology will greatly enhance our exploration capabilities and provide a competitive advantage for the discovery of new deposits," said Rare-Earths CEO Edward Cowle.

This is not going to be easy to resolve. China can manipulate the market to make it hard to ensure the prices that can attract capital. Then there are the environmental issues.

The last domestic rare earth mine closed in 2002 because of environmental problems. The rare earths occur with the slightly radioactive mineral thorium, considered as an alternative fuel to uranium for nuclear reactors.

The mines lie in the middle of critical habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead and one is next to the place where Meriwether Lewis first looked into the Pacific watershed, almost a national shrine.

If the United States is to keep its technological leadership it must have free access to the raw materials it needs to compete. Idaho has a strong supply of some of those minerals so we are going to be in the middle of U.S.-China relations whether we want to or not.

California

Has these minerals too.

The article pointed out two problems: one is access because of environmental regulations.

The other is price stability. Because of "free trade" China was able to undercut US producers, leading to their demise. In order to support a domestic source, the USA must be ready to add tariffs when needed.

No Free Lunch

Great, let's create a geopolitical crisis with rare earth earth metals, now. It's almost humorous how we jump from resource to resource trying to stay ahead of demand for energy, yet so few people are willing to really conserve. All those living in their 4,000 sq.ft. homes and driving their gas guzzlers ought to think this through; we're watching.

Socialist / Green Control Freaks

Youre watching???

Its amazing how fast the forum went from rare earth mining to this bizarre far left propaganda. Try breathing into a paper bag or something because some families actually need larger houses or have to have something a little more practical than a scooter to get around. And its really none of your business what other people do with their own money anyway!

Maybe somebody got busted once...hmmm.

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"Say a prayer for the pretender..."-Jackson Browne

Finally! A Respectable Article From The Statesman! Amen!

Kudos Mr. Barker.

I have been warning of this coming crisis for months, even speaking of the immediate shortage and strategic importance with aides in Senator Jim Risch's office.

No one knows the importance of recycling better than the mining industry. However, the "rare earth" materials have to be interjected into the economy before it is possible to "recycle" them. The quantities of these high tech minerals are extremely small. Recycling old cell phones, laptops, etc. IS a big part of the solution. However, MINING and processing are VERY important as well.

The ramnifications of not mining RIGHT NOW are huge. I have close ties to important people who know what China's plans are for supplying the USA with these critical minerals, and it's not pretty.

With the stroke of a pen, China can potentially ground all US made aircraft by denying minerals critical to manufacturing replacement parts. Or they can simply prevent aircraft, computers, cell phones, pagers, GPS devices from being made in the first place.

Joseph A. Holmes said it best (circa 1870s) when he stated "The most patriotic act a man can do is work in a mine."

There are rare earths north of McCall

My grandfather was at one time working on a deal with the Japanese with a mine up towards Warren. Don't know exactly what happened to it, but it's just as likely that they were just a little to expensive to justify at the time. Maybe now that has changed.

Truth is hard to come by

The best rare earths ever were mined by MOTOWN.

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"Say a prayer for the pretender..."-Jackson Browne