Making rare earths rarer

Guest post by chinadialogue intern Cao Jun

Just before the New Year, China slashed its rare earths export quota again. On December 28, the Ministry of Commerce allotted 14,446 tonnes to 31 companies for the first round of 2011, 35% less than the same period last year. This was the third such cut, following a 70% reduction in the second half of last year and 40% annual reduction in 2010.

Two days later, on December 30, minister of environmental protection Zhou Shengxian approved the Emission Standards of Pollutants from Rare Earth Industry. This means that not only will the rare earth supply from China be cut, but the tougher environmental standards and, as a result, higher pollution control costs, are likely to push the global price of rare earths even further.

Rare earths, a group of 17 minerals, are used in a number of high-tech processes ranging from missiles to fluorescent light bulbs and including environmental technologies such as wind turbines and hybrid cars. According to a report from the US Congressional Research Service (CRS), China has about 36% of global rare earths reserves, but produces 97% of the world’s total.

A series of chain reactions was triggered by China’s recent actions to conserve its rare earths. Shares in Molycorp, one of the world’s leading rare earth mining companies, soared 11.6% on the day of the export quota announcement. And the market value of this company tripled in the last five months, as a result of China’s tightening rare earths export policy. It was the same story over at Lynas Corp, an emerging rare earths producer in Australia, whose shares jumped 13.6% right after the news of China’s quota cut.

While companies like these are profiting, major rare earths importers are on tenterhooks. The United States, Japan and the European Union have all expressed serious concerns over China’s severe reduction of rare earth exports. Germany explicitly asked China to review its export restriction while South Korea is starting to explore Kyrgyzstan as a new source of rare earths.

The restriction may help China in international price negotiations, but China explained that the main reasons behind the move are environmental protection and resource conservation in order to meet increasing domestic demand. "China wouldn’t trade its rare earths for huge economic returns at the risk of environmental degradation," Chen Zhanheng, head of research at the Chinese Society of Rare Earths (CSRE), said in a recent interview.

While China’s ambition to upgrade and clean up its industries still faces many hurdles, at least one thing is clear: as China gets greener, the world is going to face a higher bill for high-tech products.