U.S.-China relations seem to be deteriorating faster than a salted slug. China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak has infuriated state and federal leaders. Attorney General Eric Schmitt is so incensed by China’s conduct he’s suing the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party for conducting a “sinister campaign of malfeasance and deception.”
Souring relations with China are cause for grave concern. America has been heavily reliant on China for supplies and materials crucial to our nation’s security. Our over-dependence on their medical equipment and supplies became apparent soon after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, we can — and already have — rather quickly move much of that medical manufacturing back home. But there is another more dangerous area of vulnerability that can’t be fixed as easily.
The United States, prior to the year 2000, mined and processed rare earth elements (REEs) sufficient to supply most of our nation’s needs, but China’s cheap labor and lax environmental regulations have contributed to their takeover of the world REEs market. China now produces 80 percent of the world’s supply. California has the single remaining active REEs mine in the U.S., and it ships its mined ore to China for processing.
This total outsourcing of production has, according to most experts, created a critical national security risk. Here’s the why: Rare earth elements are vital to the production of nearly all electronic equipment including guided missiles, computers, lasers, electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines, and much more. In today’s electronics-driven world, our nation would soon be paralyzed if the REEs supply is cut off.
China’s subsidized pricing of the vital commodity was designed to drive out the competition and control the world supply, and they know how to use that leverage for geopolitical gain. In 2010, China and Japan had a dustup over a maritime border dispute. China responded by blocking Japan’s access to Chinese REEs.
Then in May of 2019 — just a year ago — President Xi visited a Chinese REEs mine, and the Chinese state media, reporting on the visit, indicated Xi would be able to halt REEs sales to the U.S.
The canary in the coal mine died that day; we entered the danger zone!
A 2011 Government Accountability Office study indicated it could take more than a decade to rebuild the U.S. REEs supply. Mining the 17 different elements — they aren’t really very rare — which are usually found together is not that difficult. Processing the ore to reclaim the individual elements is the hard part.
There may be some good news in all of this: Missouri has a large REEs deposit at the abandoned Pea Ridge iron ore mine near Sullivan. The mine and mine tailings also contain thorium, a radioactive element that could someday be used in a new generation of nuclear reactors fueled by thorium. But until that happens, radioactive thorium presents a complicating factor for mining at Pea Ridge.
The Missouri Legislature once considered supporting a centralized refining facility in Missouri to break up China’s monopoly and boost our state’s economy (see HCR 40 of the second session of the 97th General Assembly). The next session of the General Assembly should consider revisiting the issue.
Once the flames of COVID-19 have cooled, it may behoove Gov. Mike Parson to appoint a panel of experts to lay the groundwork for addressing Missouri’s position in the rare earth elements marketplace.
Ron Boyer is a member of the Missouri Air Conservation Commission.