US refining, other industries face rare earths crisis - analysts

24 May 2011 19:56  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--US petroleum refining and other key energy industries soon could face disruptions unless federal policymakers move quickly to accelerate domestic production of rare earth elements (REEs) and other critical minerals, industry and academic officials told Congress on Tuesday.

Robert Jaffe, professor of theoretical physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told a House subcommittee hearing that “the problem of critical elements is serious and very real”.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Jaffe warned that “If appropriate steps are not taken, we face possible disruptive short-term constraints on supply of some elements ... that are critical to deployment of potentially game-changing energy technologies”.

“Casualties might include things ranging from important petroleum refinery catalysts to state-of-the-art wind turbines or market-competitive solar panels,” he said.

Daniel McGroarty, president of the American Resources Policy Network (ARPN), warned that US dependence on China for rare earths imports puts the nation’s industries at risk.

China provides 97% of the world’s rare earths, he noted, but its export of those critical minerals was expected to be short-lived.

“With 1.3bn people and an 8% to 9% annual economic growth rate, Chinese mining officials have begun to float the possibility that China may be a net importer of rare earths as early as 2015,” McGroarty said.

He also cited China’s apparent embargo of rare earth supplies to Japan as the result of a mining rights dispute in the East China Sea.

“Whether China withholds its rare earths supplies for geo-strategic purposes or consumes an ever-increasing amount of what it used to export,” he said, “the result will be the same: A shortage of a group of metals critical to our technological and economic development, as well as our national security.”

He pointed out that the US is 100% dependent on foreign sources for rare earths and 17 other metals and minerals.

“Compare that with foreign oil, where the US imports ‘only’ 57%,” he said.

McGroarty charged that US policies impair the development of abundant domestic supplies of rare earths and other critical minerals, noting that federal permitting processes “routinely run 7 or 8 to ten years to bring a new American mine into production”, the longest permitting process among the 25 major mining nations.

The subcommittee is among several congressional panels that are considering multiple pieces of legislation to increase domestic production of rare earths and other critical minerals, accelerate recycling and conservation methods and build stockpiles.

Paul Hodges studies key influencers shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By: Joe Kamalick
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