U.S. Mining for rare earths is rapidly falling behind China, a trend that “limits our growth, our competitiveness and our national security,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R.-Alaska) said recently.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, imports in 2016 represented more than 50% of American consumption of 50 mineral commodities, a market valued at $32.3 billion annually. Of those 50, the U.S. was 100% import-dependent on 20, representing $1.3 billion. In 2015, the U.S. was half-dependent on 47 non-fuel mineral commodities and 100% reliant on 19 commodities.
Murkowski said at a committee hearing recently that this trend exposes the U.S. to potential supply shortages and price volatility, while also reducing international leverage and attractiveness for manufacturing.
“Instead of lessening our dependence, we are actually increasing our dependence,” she said. “We’re not making headway on this issue. … What are we doing wrong here?”
While Senator Murkowski’s comments are no doubt welcome by U.S. manufacturers who would love to source neodymium, scandium and other elements locally, a cursory look at our Rare Earths MMI shows that the supply situation is as much to blame for the lack of U.S. production as anything else, particularly among the heavy rare earths that most Chinese companies provide. Our Rare Earths MMI increased one point to a paltry 19 this month, its HIGHEST point since August of 2015. Ever since China banned export quotas of the key battery and magnet metals there has been plentiful supply and the low prices that come along with it.
Many smaller (some illegal) Chinese producers do not have the start-up costs that any Western rare earth producer does, simply because of lax regulation in that part of the world. That is changing, but the process is a slow one. Unfortunately for any prospective U.S. producers, the start-up costs situation is even worse when facing off against the larger Chinese rare earths producers. Some are state-sponsored and even the private ones enjoy subsidies at the state and national levels that no American producer could ever hope for.
If Senator Murkowski and her committee want to promote the work of a U.S. rare earths miner (Molycorp, Inc. was the last active one and its Mountain Pass mine is up for auction after a bankruptcy last year), they should do what was promised during the election and roll back regulations that drive up startup costs for miners. It’s unlikely that a U.S. miner will ever face an even playing field with state-sponsored Chinese miners but right now, the tilt of it is so bad that many won’t even try. How bad is it? The company that holds the most promising identified deposit in the U.S. changed its name last year to downplay the fact that it plans to mine rare earths. Texas Rare Earths, which plans to mine a deposit in rural Round Top, changed its name to Texas Mineral Resources Corp.
The new name reflects a “significantly broader scope of Round Top projected output,” the company said in its release. What’s funny is one of the “broader” elements the release notes is scandium, which is generally considered a light rare earth element. It’s used the aerospace and automotive industries, particularly in aluminum alloys. Could it be that the rare earth “brand” is so damaged by abundant Chinese supply that U.S. companies are running away from it in their quest to draw investors?
Good luck with fixing the domestic supply situation, Senator Murkowski.