Friday, June 18, 2010

There's gold in them thar hills

Somehow the shout of: "There's REEs, or rare earth elements in them thar hills" does't have quite such a dramatic a ring to it. But we'll be seeing much more on this topic, or more precisely, on the impending shortage of these really not so 'rare in the earth' minerals, in the news media over the next weeks, months and even years.

As I pointed out in my June 13th blog, only a couple of decades ago the US was the globe's primary producer of REEs, but was supplanted by China, whose many small processors (although the the main source of their minerals is actually one mine in Mongolia) undersold the one major US producer (California's Mountain Pass Mines) and thereby cornered the market.

A Miner 49er - back before helicopters, 
when men were men.

That California mine is now owned by Molycorp Minerals and is being brought up to environmental standards and modernized at a cost of $1/2 billion, before being returned to production - projected for 2011. Another mining corporation, Avalon Rare Metals is working on an apparently rich deposit of rare earth elements in Canada - the Nechalacho Rare Earth Element Project located at Thor Lake, Northwest Territories.

China has apparently been reducing its exports of REEs by some 6% per year for some time, and while some Chinese spokespeople have indicated that their exports will not be suddenly terminated, others have not been so optimistic about their future actions. The Chinese government has certainly warned that they will need an ever increasing portion of their production for their own national consumption, and it is also concerned about conservation of supplies for the future. World demand is currently estimated to be some 150,000 tons per year... and climbing.

Because of the long lead-time it takes to bring any mine into production, some experts have warned that there will be a shortage of REEs very soon, and that this might last for as many as 15 years. Rare earth magnets are required in many electronic products, and the elements are essential components of such diverse things as batteries for electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines, i.e. the new alternate, green energy products.

This creates a new quandary for the environmental activists to ponder, because they absolutely abhor mines. Obviously, without new mines the alternate energy, "green" industries will grind to a halt, and the world would remain totally dependent on oil and coal - what I refer to as the black energy sources.

I have little doubt that the ever pragmatic, political decision makers will be forced to concede to the miners on this occasion... as they have done so frequently in the past.

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