As the U.S. scrambles to reshore supply chains in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large talking point has been China’s dominance over rare earths–the critical minerals that are essential for high technology, clean energy, and especially high-end U.S. defense platforms. A recent study by Horizon Advisory indicates that China plans to use that dominance to their advantage against the West–including in trade deals with the U.S.
Researchers at Horizon Advisory studied hundreds of Chinese government documents and academic research funded by the government. They found that China has been heavily subsidizing its rare earth industry for years in efforts to gain a foothold over the rest of the world. China using rare earths as a weapon isn’t a new occurrence either–in 2010, China halted essential mineral exports to Japan after a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands.
China currently has control of 90 percent of the rare earth market. At least eight key minerals that the U.S. needs are dependent on China. U.S. officials are quickly working to produce more of the critical minerals to lessen their dependence on China. The U.S. only has one rare earth mine located in the California desert. In April, the Pentagon made plans to invest in a new processing facility at the mine to speed up production of the critical minerals.
As the demand for electrical vehicles grows, the U.S. will become more and more dependent on China for essential minerals needed for production. However, while U.S. technology and clean energy may be in trouble, the country’s most concerning mineral dependency is that of military defense weapons. With China having almost total control over U.S. essential minerals, they consequently have power over the U.S. military and their weapons.
“Our sovereignty is in our military,” said Don Buckner, President and CEO of MadeinAmerica.com. “If our military relies on foreign entities to provide parts and supplies, we might as well not have a military.”
In May, several U.S. senators introduced bipartisan legislation, The American Mineral Security Act, calling for certain actions to reduce America’s dependence on China for minerals. The act includes introducing mineral recycling efforts and new studies to locate rare earths within U.S. territories.
“Our nation’s mineral security is a significant, urgent, and often ignored challenge,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). “Our reliance on China and other nations for critical minerals costs us jobs, weakens our economic competitiveness, and leaves us at a geopolitical disadvantage.”
There is hope as investments begin for rare earth minerals in the United States.
It’s amazing good fortune, then, that out in the barren scrub of Far West Texas 85 miles east of El Paso, an unassuming 1,250-tall mountain called Round Top holds the promise of making America largely self-sufficient in these critical minerals. The mountain contains five out of six light rare earths (such as neodymium), 10 out of 11 heavy rare earths (dysprosium, for example), and all five permanent magnet materials. What’s more, Round Top has large deposits of lithium, critical for batteries in EVs and power storage.
USA Rare Earth is a privately held Delaware LLC that was formed specifically to develop the project to extract and process Round Top’s valuable ore.
The mining and processing project’s financials appear robust as well. USA Rare Earth estimates that, over the first 20 years of the project, annual gross revenues will average $422 million, with an annual average EBITDA of $282 million. The project payback period is 1.8 years. “The first 20 years, we expect to generate $8.4 billion in revenue,” Althaus said. “That’s based on extracting 20,000 tons per year. But that’s just for the U.S. – we’ve been approached by other governments who are interested too, which may justify increasing our annual production from our current projections.” Feasibility work and permitting for the mine continue this year, with construction slated to begin in late 2021. Commercial production at the mine is anticipated in 2023.
The opportunities here aren’t lost on the defense community. Source: Forbes