“Chinese state media warned that Beijing could cut America off from exotic minerals that are widely used in electric cars and mobile phones. The threat to use China’s rich supply of so-called rare earths as leverage in the conflict has contributed to sharp losses in U.S. stocks and sliding long-term bond yields.” — PBS, May 29, 2019
One of the reason China mines most rare earths—80% of global production is in China—is because mining rare earths is ecologically devastating, and China has very lax environmental laws. Even when China tries to strengthen those laws, corruption is rampant and so industries just bribe local officials to look the other way.
Of course, it is supremely unfair for us here in the US—where we’ve had, until recently, stronger environmental laws certainly than China, thanks to the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and related laws—to allow people in other countries to die so we can have our electronics, wind turbines, solar panels, batteries, power grids, etc., all of which require rare earths. Global production of several rare earth minerals used in solar panels and wind turbines—especially neodymium, terbium, indium, dysprosium, and praseodymium—is expected to grow twelvefold by 2050 due to demand for “renewables”.
If we start mining rare earths in quantity here in the US, it will rapidly become obvious to anyone working in and living near those industries just how devastating they are to the environment. Rare earths aren’t actually rare; they are metals and minerals similar to others we’re more familiar with (silver, gold), but they aren’t concentrated into veins that are easily extractable. That means a huge amount of ore (earth) must be mined and processed in order to extract small amounts of these metals and minerals.
“Processing rare earths is a dirty business. Their ore is often laced with radioactive materials such as thorium, and separating the wheat from the chaff requires huge amounts of carcinogenic toxins – sulphates, ammonia and hydrochloric acid. Processing one ton of rare earths produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste.” — The Guardian
Whether it happens in China or in the US, people and ecosystems die because of mining. Do we continue to let Chinese people and ecosystems die for us? Or are we willing to put our own ecosystems and lives on the line (more than we already do)?
Given the current US administration seems to want to gut what’s left of our environmental laws, if we’re going to move these dirty industries here, now’s the time to do it.
Or we could decide to stop using rare earths, stop mining, stop destroying ecosystems, and stop destroying ourselves. Our choice.
Which will we choose?
Image: spectral sensing of rare earths is developed into a fingerprint image researchers Sally Gibson, Teal Riley and David Neave are using to help locate rare earths.