Rare Elements Policy Offers a Lesson

Let’s face it, most geology news in the popular press is event driven. Soaring oil prices was last year’s headline. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions grabbed media attention this year.

Rarely, however, do the media talk about the role geosciences play in everyday life, delivering such necessary things as fuel, raw materials and clean water. These are taken for granted.

But this summer the New York Times and U.S. News and World Reportboth published stories about rare earth elements and the increasingly tough competition for a limited supply of these elements.

Rare earth elements are not something I think about regularly. In fact, I had to pull my freshman chemistry textbook for a quick refresher.

Rare earth elements are not rare at all in terms of being scarce. They are the Lanthanides, and are usually separated from a standard periodic table right after lanthanum and placed below the chart. They begin with cerium (atomic number 58) and include neodymium, gadolinium, dysprosium and others, ending with lutetium (atomic number 71).

Maybe it’s just me, but terbium (atomic number 65) rarely rises into my consciousness. Why then am I reading articles about it in the New York Times?

It turns out these rare earth elements are needed for, among other things, green energy and military technologies. They are essential components of magnets used in wind turbines and electric motors, such as those found in the Toyota Prius.

Increases in alternative energy production and more efficient use of fossil fuels through hybrid and plug-in hybrid technologies are driving significant demand for these elements. Yet today the majority of these elements are produced by only one nation: China.

One day after the August Leadership Conference in Tulsa, the New York Timespublished an article titled, “China Tightens Grip on Rare Minerals.” Author Keith Bradsher reported that China currently produces 93 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals and 99 percent of the world’s dysprosium and terbium.

China is now reducing export quotas for these elements, both to ensure it has sufficient supply for its own needs but also to attract foreign direct investment. When manufacturers move their production facilities close to the raw material source it brings technology, investment and jobs to China.

Predictably, most articles about this issue discuss it within the geopolitical context of China, an economic powerhouse, ensuring that its resource needs are met – the implication being that other economies will not be able to secure the resources they need. A July 2009 U.S. News and World Reportarticle titled, “America’s New Energy Dependency: China’s Metals,” by Kent Garber, presents the current situation and how we got here.

Notwithstanding the title of the article, what emerges from Garber’s analysis is less a story of the haves and have-nots – recall that rare earth minerals are not scarce – but rather one of strategic intent in China and no strategy elsewhere.

According to Garber, the United States was the principal producer of these minerals in the 1970s and 1980s. But China’s fabled leader Deng Xiaoping recognized his country’s potential and articulated strategic intent: “The Middle East has oil; we have rare earths,” he said. “We must develop these rare earths.”

That is what they did, eclipsing the U.S. producers and forcing many of them to close or to move.

Fundamentally, this is a story of policy makers in the United States and elsewhere not understanding the long-term and collective impacts of individual policy decisions (or lack thereof). This is, in part, due to the nature of our two-party system. But it also is due to policy- makers lacking a framework for thinking about these issues.

The U.S. National Research Council recognized this deficiency. In 2008 its Committee on Earth Resources issued a report titled “Minerals, Critical Minerals and the U.S. Economy,” that seeks to present a framework for policy makers to use in evaluating minerals and their relationship to the U.S. economy.

The study urges policy-makers to begin assessing the criticality of all minerals, enhance the data collected and analyzed by U.S. agencies and fund research to improve our understanding of global mineral resources.

In my mind, the rare earth minerals story has strong parallels with issues confronting the oil and gas community.

As Congress considers opening or restricting access to public lands for exploration and development, restrictions on well stimulation techniques like hydraulic fracturing, or tax policies that discourage rather than encourage production, are they considering the long-term effect these decisions will have?

Please join me on the GEO-DC blog to discuss this further. Look for the October Washington Watch post and share your ideas in the comment section of what these long-term effects for rare earth minerals, energy technologies, the economy and oil and gas might be.

As a scientific and professional association this is an area where members can provide valuable information and expertise. Come join the conversation.

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Washington Watch

Washington Watch - David Curtiss

David Curtiss served as the Director of AAPG’s Geoscience and Energy Office in Washington, D.C. from 2008-11.

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Washington Watch - Creties Jenkins

Creties Jenkins is a past president of the EMD.

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Washington Watch - Dan Smith

Dan Smith is chair of the Governance Board.

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 Peter MacKenzie is vice chair of the Governance Board. 

Policy Watch

Policy Watch is a monthly column of the EXPLORER written by the director of AAPG's  Geoscience and Energy Office in Washington, D.C. *The first article appeared in February 2006 under the name "Washington Watch" and the column name was changed to "Policy Watch" in January 2013 to broaden the subject matter to a more global view.

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Thirty-seven mudstone samples were collected from the uppermost Lower Mudstone Member of the Potrerillos Formation in El Gordo minibasin within La Popa Basin, Mexico. The unit is exposed in a circular pattern at the earth's surface and is intersected by El Gordo diapir in the northeast part of the minibasin. Vitrinite reflectance (Ro) results show that samples along the eastern side of the minibasin (i.e., south of the diapir) are mostly thermally immature to low maturity (Ro ranges from 0.53% to 0.64%). Vitrinite values along the southern, western, and northwestern part of the minibasin range between 0.67% and 0.85%. Values of Ro immediately northwest of the diapir are the highest, reaching a maximum of 1.44%. The results are consistent with two different possibilities: (1) that the diapir plunges to the northwest, or (2) that a focused high-temperature heat flow existed along just the northwest margin of the diapir. If the plunging diapir interpretation is correct, then the thermally immature area south of the diapir was in a subsalt position, and the high-maturity area northwest of the diapir was in a suprasalt position prior to Tertiary uplift and erosion. If a presumed salt source at depth to the northwest of El Gordo also fed El Papalote diapir, which is located just to the north of El Gordo diapir, then the tabular halokinetic sequences that are found only along the east side of El Papalote may be subsalt features. However, if the diapir is subvertical and the high-maturity values northwest of the diapir are caused by prolonged, high-temperature fluid flow along just the northwestern margin of the diapir, then both of these scenarios are in disagreement with previously published numerical models. This disagreement arises because the models predict that thermal anomalies will extend outward from a diapir a distance roughly 1.5 times the radius of the diapir, but the results reported here show that the anomalous values on one side of the diapir are about two times the radius, whereas they are as much as five times the radius on the other side of the diapir. The results indicate that strata adjacent to salt margins may experience significantly different heat histories adjacent to different margins of diapirs that result in strikingly different diagenetic histories, even at the same depth.
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The low-accommodation strata are characterized by a high-frequency occurrence of significant surfaces, coal seam splitting, paleosol, and incised-valley development. Three sequence boundary unconformities are identified in only 20 m (66 ft) of strata. Coal cycle correlations illustrate that each coal seam in this study area was not produced by a single peat-accumulation episode but as an amalgamation of a series of depositional events. Complex relations between the Cummings and Lloydminster coal seams are caused by the lateral fragmentation of strata resulting from the removal of sediment by subaerial erosion or periods of nondeposition. Syndepositional faulting of the underlying basement rock changed local accommodation space and increased the complexity of the coal cycle development.

This study represents a low-accommodation example from a spectrum of stratigraphic studies that have been used to establish a terrestrial sequence-stratigraphic model. The frequency of changes in coal seam quality is an important control on methane distribution within coalbed methane reservoirs and resource calculations in coal mining. A depositional model based on the coal cycle correlations, as shown by this study, can provide coal quality prediction for coalbed methane exploration, reservoir completions, and coal mining.

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Update your knowledge on world shale plays and take advantage of new opportunities using new technologies / techniques which you will learn with us at the AAPG International Shale Plays Workshop, 28-29 April 2015.
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