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China Moving To Restrict Neodymium Supply 477

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-for-all-the-tea-in-oh-wait dept.
GuyFawkes writes with this quote from the Independent: "Britain and other Western countries risk running out of supplies of certain highly sought-after rare metals that are vital to a host of green technologies, amid growing evidence that China, which has a monopoly on global production, is set to choke off exports of valuable compounds. Failure to secure alternative long-term sources of rare earth elements (REEs) would affect the manufacturing and development of low-carbon technology, which relies on the unique properties of the 17 metals to mass-produce eco-friendly innovations such as wind turbines and low-energy light bulbs. China, whose mines account for 97 per cent of global supplies, is trying to ensure that all raw REE materials are processed within its borders. During the past seven years it has reduced by 40 per cent the amount of rare earths available for export."
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China Moving To Restrict Neodymium Supply

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  • by CodeBuster (516420) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @01:43PM (#30624612)
    This has been discussed here on Slashdot before, but rare earths are not as difficult to mine and produce as the term "rare" implies; they are rare only in a relative sense compared to other common elements of the Earth's crust. They are mostly not rare on the same order as gold or platinum group metals, although there are exceptions. There are plenty of sources for most of these elements in the continental United States and other nations outside of China; it just costs a certain amount of money to mine and refine them. If China chokes off supplies from their own mines and processors then it will make those same sorts of mines and processors cost-competitive again here in the United States and elsewhere in the world. This really isn't that big of a deal.
  • by GuyFawkes (729054) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @01:45PM (#30624638) Homepage Journal

    The following link is ESSENTIAL reading

    http://seekingalpha.com/article/178225-on-the-rare-earth-crisis-of-2009 [seekingalpha.com]

  • Re:and why not ? (Score:5, Informative)

    by abigor (540274) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @01:49PM (#30624686)

    No, China is a signatory to the WTO and curbing raw materials exports is a violation. The WTO is looking into the issue: http://www.purchasing.com/article/441486-WTO_to_study_China_s_raw_material_export_curbs.php [purchasing.com]

    No Western country could get away with limiting raw materials exports for secondary and tertiary onshore processing, though some have tried.

  • by PatDev (1344467) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @01:51PM (#30624710)

    Umm, the Chinese did not cut off the supply of Opium. They cut off the demand for opium. The British were illegally smuggling opium from India into China, then the Chinese enforced their laws, leading to war.

  • by konekoniku (793686) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @02:05PM (#30624822)
    Or more likely, Japan will just shift its neodymium orders to mines in the US, Australia, Brazil, and elsewhere, as these will increase their output when China drives up global prices by restricting her exports. Rare earth metals are only relatively rare -- we're not nearly about to run out of the things, and China isn't the only country with significant total reserves. At any rate, Japan doesn't owe China war reparations anymore anyway: Mao Zedong waived all reparations as part of the price for buying Japan's diplomatic recognition in 1972.
  • Re:and why not ? (Score:2, Informative)

    by maxume (22995) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @02:12PM (#30624892)

    For all the wailing about such trajectories, Western industrial economies still produce 4 to 5 times as much as China's.

  • by Trepidity (597) <(gro.hsikcah) (ta) (todhsals-muiriled)> on Saturday January 02, 2010 @02:33PM (#30625120)

    Yeah, the current Chinese monopoly on current production for many of the elements is just because they've undercut all other producers, so rare earths are too cheap to be worth mining outside of China. There was quite a lot of rare-earth mining in the U.S. in the 1980s and 90s, and many of those mines are still waiting to be restarted when the price gets high enough to be worth it. Here's [molycorp.com] a timeline from the largest U.S. miner (currently not mining, but sitting around processing some existing stocks of ore).

  • by Surt (22457) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @02:35PM (#30625132) Homepage Journal

    Subsistence style living is not an option ... large scale commercial style farming is the only way to feed the number of people we have (and it isn't enough, really). So if we're headed down the path of subsistence living ... well ... buy a lot of guns and bullets, because there isn't enough to go around.

  • by EsbenMoseHansen (731150) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @02:40PM (#30625186) Homepage

    very gooood. i think this is highly amusing, on several fronts. the first is just the irony of the country touted as having "A Bad Human Rights Record" (when in fact they are just using common sense to keep control over 1.3 billion people) happens to now hold a damocles sword over the rest of the world if it wants to go "green".

    According to wikipedia [wikipedia.org], this entire article is just silly. Neodymium is not rare, nor only occurring in China.

  • Re:Unobtainium! (Score:2, Informative)

    by elFisico (877213) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @02:40PM (#30625196)

    China is mining a vein of Unobtainium!

    ...and look what they are doing to the locals!! :-((((

  • by konekoniku (793686) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @02:52PM (#30625314)
    Historically, production in China was cheaper due to lower labor (and land) costs, so over the decades many companies moved labor-intensive manufacturing operations there. In turn, this meant other countries had to start importing these goods from China, resulting in a balance-of-payments deficit. As a result of this China now has a large share of the world's manufacturing base, as well as large foreign currency reserves that can be used to buy goods/land/resources/companies abroad. China has historically used many of these reserves to buy hundreds of billions of dollars worth of US Treasury Bills, so in theory the US is legally indebted to China. Two things to keep in mind though: 1) China's lower labor costs won't last -- they're rising at 15-25%/year. As a result many companies have already begun shifting manufacturing operations back out of China, this time to even lower-cost manufacturing countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Burma, etc. 2) China can't really use its US Treasury holdings to bully the US -- in fact, it can't even really count on the value of all the US Treasury Bills it holds. If it starts dumping US Treasuries in bulk, the price of treasuries will drop like a stone and wipe out much of the value of China's foreign reserve. Moreover, US Treasuries are, in the end, just a promise from the US government to pay with no real guarantee -- if China starts using them as a weapon, the US may just opt to repudiate the debt (though not without major consequences in terms of investor confidence and future interest rates).
  • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Saturday January 02, 2010 @04:14PM (#30626120)

    It's a competition and lately we've been hobbling ourselves trying to protect the income of existing corporations by killing new businesses.

    Software / business model patents are not helping us compete. They're crippling our new businesses.

  • by Anonymous Bullard (62082) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @04:18PM (#30626160) Homepage

    The Chinese "communist" dictatorship - the most murderous in human history - has obviously a long list of crimes to their "credit" (modern corporate speak), but in this context it might also be relevant to mention that part of that regime's near total control over the rare earth elements is due to China's invasion and ongoing genocidal occupation of Tibet since 1950.

    Mao Zedong may have "only" wanted pre-one-child-policy era lebensraum for the Chinese masses (from 1950 to 1970 the Chinese population doubled from 500 million to 1 billion), geopolitical and military control over the Central Asian highlands of Tibet and incomprehensible (in communist terms anyway) validation of China's fairytale-like feudal imperial claims over the absolutely non-Chinese Tibetan people when he sent his Communist Party's then-idle wardogs to invade and occupy Tibet, but it turned out that the subsequent Chinese national-socialist (read: Chinazi) leaders and their affiliated business "princelings" have found it incredibly lucrative to ransack Tibet of its natural resources.

    Nearly all historically invaluable precious metal artifacts and statues were melted for Mao's foreign currency purchases (while the invaluable Buddhist scriptures and almost all of the more than 6000 monasteries were simply burned down or bombed. Tibet's forests have been hacked down and shipped off to China (leaving only erosion behind). Uranium, gas and oil are extracted by Party-affiliated cronies and the Chinese regime only leaving behind severe pollution. All profitable industrial metals, including the rare earth metals, are being excavated while protesting native Tibetans get the old Gestapo treatment. Et cetera and et cetera.

    Did I mention that the Chinese dictatorship is hard at work damming and diverting the major Asian rivers originating in Tibet and providing lifeline to over a billion South-Asians (incl. India) downstream, in order to generate electric power and to provide water for the occupying Chinese state and the newly settled Chinese instead? United Nations' conventions be damned in every case.

    So what if the Chinese regime now wants to restrict the supply of crucial industrial metals? Don't say you didn't see it coming. Consider sending a distress signal to your democratic representative, that is if the "western" corporations don't already have him or her in their pocket.

    The Western and democratic peoples need to either shut up and live with the consequences, or do something before it's too late for all of us.

  • Re:and why not ? (Score:4, Informative)

    by phoenix321 (734987) * on Saturday January 02, 2010 @04:28PM (#30626268)
    The Chinese people can demand all they want, they got no Bill of Rights and no Second Amendment to force their superiors to implement one. Since yesterday, they are facing prison for looking at pictures of naked women on the Internet. I don't think they will get around demanding anything anytime soon.
  • by PPH (736903) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @06:08PM (#30627184)

    Is it true that I could take $10,000 from the US and go to China and have x10 the shopping spree than I could in the States?

    No, you can't.

    WalMart and practically every other retailer can, but you must spend your money with them. If you try to take $10,000 out, you'll be put on some list for suspicious financial transactions (at least), or have it confiscated if your paperwork isn't exactly up to snuff. And when you bring that 'stuff' back, the nice people at customs will want a cut of it.

  • by CodeBuster (516420) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @06:10PM (#30627216)

    what's to stop the Chinese from flooding the market with metals for a year or two, collapsing the price and bankrupting the mines?

    This is the same sort of argument that people make in support of restrictions against "predatory pricing" but there has not been a single documented case, at least not that I am aware of, in economic history where a firm has been able to successfully drive all firms out of a market by undercutting prices and then come out the other end with any durable pricing or monopoly power. The argument sounds compelling in theory, but in practice it doesn't work. As soon as prices are raised again to take advantage of the newly created monopoly, new competitors will re-enter the market almost immediately to replace the ones who may have been bankrupted. A relevant and famous example of this in the commodity resource markets was the case of the Herbert Henry Dow and Bromkonvention [wikipedia.org]. They tried to force Dow out of the bromine business by dumping cheap bromine in the United States, but Dow simply instructed his agents to buy up the cheap German bromine in the US and resell it overseas at less than what Bromkonvention was charging elsewhere. The Germans were forced to give up because they were losing money and not hurting Dow.

    The international producer cartels can keep the market for petroleum, gold and gemstones artificially controlled, but there is no such beast for rare earths and every incentive for the Chinese to prevent the creation of one.

    Gold and Oil are valuable because there already isn't enough supply to go around even with most known sources in full-tilt production. The case for diamonds and other gemstones is a bit more clearly the result of Cartel behavior, but even the DeBeers monopoly is not what it used to be. However, I maintain my original stance that the Chinese will not be successful in cornering the market for rare earths; as soon as they attempt to raise prices or exert pricing power their competition will very quickly rebound. Mines and equipment don't simply disappear when a company goes bankrupt, they can be bought up and maintained by future competitors until the market becomes profitable once again. The Chinese will gain no long term advantage from hoarding or attempting to buy up all known sources (there are just too many known or potential alternative sources).

  • Re:and why not ? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Dr. Spork (142693) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @06:24PM (#30627356)
    Just to make clear, this article does not say that China will not export Neodynium. They will, as ingots - lots of ingots. It's just that until now, they've been exporting the metal at much earlier stages of the refining process, so Western companies have been buying it up, processing it and selling it at a big markup. Now China is saying that they want to be the people to do that processing and collect the markup.

    Likewise, Canada wouldn't create a wood shortage if they announced that they will no longer sell logs but instead sell only kiln-dried boards.

  • Re:and why not ? (Score:4, Informative)

    by evilviper (135110) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @07:19PM (#30627806) Journal

    Everything is made in China , they can be penalized and they won't care. They will keep doing it until we bar all Chinese products , good luck doing that.

    No economist in the world will deny that China needs the US a lot more than the US needs China.

    Everything is NOT made in China. China remains the #3 economy, a very large margin behind the US and Japan. The US remains the #1 manufacture in the world... almost double that of #2.

    You think China makes "everything" because you see the little "Made in China" label on every $2 item you buy, and assume that's all there is to the world. You don't buy turbines, heavy construction machinery, commercial jets, etc. There are lots of Chinese business owners bemoaning the fact that "Everything is made in the USA and Japan."

  • Re:and why not ? (Score:5, Informative)

    by timeOday (582209) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @08:40PM (#30628354)
    Oh brother. Any issue with rare earth elements is completely dwarfed by our billion dollar per day dependency on foreign oil [ascfusa.org]. Refusing to see the vast difference in scale between the two is completely irrational.
  • Re:and why not ? (Score:5, Informative)

    by LynnwoodRooster (966895) on Saturday January 02, 2010 @10:58PM (#30629096) Journal
    I work in the loudspeaker industry - we use a LOT of neo magnets. China is really about the only place in the world where you can get neo magnets made. The last vendor in the US closed years ago (General Magnetics down in Texas) not because of lack of sales but environmental regulations. Refining of neo into magnets and other materials has effectively been shut down in the US by regulations, meaning we have no choice but to buy neo based products from overseas (mainly China).
  • Re:and why not ? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Boronx (228853) <evonreis@mohr-en g i n e e r i n g . com> on Saturday January 02, 2010 @11:27PM (#30629254) Homepage Journal

    That's funny, the Western Country I live in, the USA, purposefully let it's manufacturing advantage wither on the vine so that the investor class could get richer.

The sooner all the animals are extinct, the sooner we'll find their money. - Ed Bluestone

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