Now more than ever, at this critical period in history, large manufacturing powers like the US, Japan, Korea, and others are far too dependent on China for one essential manufacturing component: rare earth metals.
Rare earth metals are found in a large majority of high-tech devices, including the ones that power our electrical grid, medical technology, and defense applications, among other things. In 2018, China mined over 80 percent of rare earth metals in the world.
Why is this happening?
Until recently, Western nations had no desire to mine rare earths because of their small profitability. Today, however, rare earths are a necessary component of most high-tech applications–leaving developed nations to rely on their mining.
However, rare earths are significantly more expensive to mine than most metals when not mined with environmentally harmful chemicals. Now, China is largely in control of the production of rare earths throughout the world.
This introduces economic and political complications that could affect people all over the globe.
What risks does our dependency cause?
Dependency on foreign countries for anything isn’t preferable–especially when it is essential to our safety and intelligence. Rare earths are an important part of devices in the medical field, U.S. army and national security, along with our personal devices.
If China were to cut off our supply, we would be extremely vulnerable. This became an issue that is deeply concerning in May, when China threatened to cut off America’s supply as part of the U.S.-China Trade War.
Especially during time of uncertainty, having a domestic supply is the only way to ensure national security and to continue to thrive economically.
How do we fix this?
While it may be more expensive to mine for rare earths in the U.S., it’s not impossible. America has stricter environmental regulations which hold mining practices to a higher standard and result in more expensive procedures–but, there are still areas throughout the country that are promising rare earth mining locations.
The U.S. currently only has the Mountain Pass Mine in California, but is working on others. A U.S. Geological Survey recently concluded that there are at least 10 large deposits of rare earths throughout the country. Bear Lodge in northeast Wyoming holds an estimated 18 million tons of rare earth inside. That’s a large percentage of the 99 million total tons in the Earth’s crust.
Randy Scott, President and CEO of Littleton, Colorado-based Rare Earth Resources, says that this resource is essential if the U.S. wants to continue towards clean energy and electric cars.
“I know the people of Wyoming are looking to diversify its economic base and move away from carbon-based products,” he says. “This will happen at some point, because if the U.S. doesn’t do something, then we are going to find ourselves in big trouble.”