Rare Elements Policy Offers a Lesson

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

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.

URLs for referenced links:

Comments (0)

 

What Can I Do?

Add Item

Enter Notes:
 
* You must be logged in to name and customize your collection.
Recommend Recommend
Printable Version Printable Version Email to a friend Email to a friend

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.

Washington Watch

Washington Watch - Creties Jenkins

Creties Jenkins is a past president of the EMD.

Washington Watch

Washington Watch - Dan Smith

Dan Smith is chair of the Governance Board.

Washington Watch

Washington Watch - Peter MacKenzie

 Peter MacKenzie is vice chair of the Governance Board. 

Regions and Sections

Regions and Sections - Peter MacKenzie

 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.

View column archives

See Also: 3P Arctic

3P Arctic 2017 Polar Petroleum Potential Conference & Exhibition (3P Arctic) 2017 Polar Petroleum Potential Conference & Exhibition (3P Arctic) Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/er-3parctic-2016-hero.jpg?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 23915

See Also: Industry Meeting

Industry Meeting DUG East Hart Energy Conference DUG East Hart Energy Conference Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/dug-east-hart-energy-conference.png?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 30340

See Also: ACE Program Paper

ACE Program Paper Room 601/603 Unconventional Jurassic Carbonate Source Rocks, Saudi Arabia Unconventional Jurassic Carbonate Source Rocks, Saudi Arabia Desktop /Portals/0/images/ace/2015/luncheon heros/ace2015-tp3-evaporites.jpg?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 15090
ACE Program Paper Room 601/603 Cyclicity of Inclined Heterolithic Stratification in the McMurray Formation, NE Alberta, Canada Cyclicity of Inclined Heterolithic Stratification in the McMurray Formation, NE Alberta, Canada Desktop /Portals/0/images/ace/2015/luncheon heros/ace2015-tp9-other-unconventionals.jpg?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 15655

See Also: Industry Meeting Program Paper

Industry Meeting Program Paper Cenozoic Rift Basins and Deformation of Offshore Southern Myanmar, Andaman Sea; The Seismic Data Tells the Story Cenozoic Rift Basins and Deformation of Offshore Southern Myanmar, Andaman Sea; The Seismic Data Tells the Story Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/im-2015-hero-yangon-conference.jpg?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 22742