“China’s control of a key minerals market has US military thinkers and policy makers worried about access to materials that are essential for 21st-century technology like smartphones – and smart bombs,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Plus stealth fighter jets, digital cameras, computer hard drives – and wind turbine magnets, solar panels, hybrid and electric car batteries, compact fluorescent light bulbs, catalytic converters, and more.
China’s dominance in mining and processing 17 “rare earth” metals “has raised alarms in Washington,” says the Journal. These unique metallic elements have powerful magnetic properties that make them sine qua non for high-tech, miniaturized and renewable energy equipment.
China currently produces fully 97% of the world’s rare-earth oxides, the raw materials that can be refined into metals and blended into specialty alloys for defense, commercial and power-generation components. However, the Middle Kingdom has slashed its rare-earth oxide and metal exports.
Beijing claims to be motivated by environmental concerns – reflecting the fact that rare earths are present in very low concentrations, mountains of rock must be mined, crushed and processed to get usable metals, and every step in the process requires oil, gasoline or coal-based electricity. A more likely reason is that the Chinese want to manufacture the finished goods, thereby creating countless “green” factory jobs, paid for with US and EU taxpayer subsidies, channeled through GE, Siemens, Vestas and other “socially responsible” companies that then install the systems across Europe and the USA.
So here we are, long beholden to foreign powers for petroleum – and newly dependent on foreign powers for “green” energy. National security issues (direct defense needs and indirect dependency issues) once again rise to the fore, and the Defense Department, Government Accountability Office, House Science and Technology Committee and others are busily issuing reports, holding hearings and expressing consternation. Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN) worries that the United States is being “held hostage.”
As well he should. However, the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves – or more precisely in our militant environmentalists.
Back in 1978, I ruined a perfectly pleasant hike in a RARE-II roadless area, by asking an impertinent question. “How do you defend prohibiting any kind of energy or mineral exploration in wilderness study areas?” I asked Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rupert Cutler and Forest Service Chief John McGuire, “The 1964 Wilderness Act expressly allows and encourages those activities, so that Congress and the American people can make informed decisions about how to manage these lands, based on extensive information about both surface and subsurface values. How do you defend ignoring that provision?”
“I don’t think Congress should have enacted that provision,” Dr. Cutler replied.
“That may be your opinion,” I responded. “But Congress did enact it, and you are obligated by your oath of office to follow the law the way it was written, not the way you think it should have been written.”
“I think we’ve said enough to this guy,” Cutler said to Chief McGuire, and they walked away.
A couple months later, I asked the Denver Sierra Club wilderness coordinator a related question: “Why are you focusing so heavily on areas with the best energy and mineral potential? Isn’t that going to impact prices, jobs and national security?”
“Americans use too much energy, and they’re not going to change voluntarily,” he said. “The only way to make them change is to take the resources away. And the best way to do that is put them in wilderness.”
And every other restrictive land use category that arrogant, thoughtless activists, bureaucrats, judges and politicians can devise, he might have added. Which is how we got where we are today.
As of 1994, over 410 million acres were effectively off limits to mineral exploration and development, according to consulting geologist Courtland Lee, who prepared probably the last definitive analysis, published in The Professional Geologist. That’s 62% of the nation’s public lands – an area nearly equal to Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming combined – primarily in Alaska and our eleven westernmost Lower 48 states. Today, sixteen years later, the situation is much worse – with millions more acres locked up in wilderness, park, preserve, wildlife refuge, wilderness study and other restrictive land use categories, or simply made unavailable by bureaucratic fiat or foot-dragging.
Due to forces unleashed by plate tectonics, these rugged lands contain some of the most highly mineralized mountain and desert areas in North America. They almost certainly hold dozens, perhaps hundreds, of world-class rare-earth deposits. The vast mineral wealth extracted from those areas since the mid-1850s portends what might still be there, to be discovered by modern prospecting gadgets and methods. But unless laws and attitudes change, we will never know.
How ironic. First eco-activists lock up the raw materials. Then they force-feed us “renewable energy standards” that require the very materials they’ve locked up, which we’ve never much needed until now. Thus China (and perhaps other countries a few years hence) will happily fill the breach, creating green jobs beyond our borders, selling us the finished components, and using our tax dollars to subsidize the imported wind turbines, solar panels and CFL bulbs that are driving energy costs through the roof.
Science historian James Burke became famous for chronicling the “Connections” between successions of past discoveries and achievements and various modern technologies. Unfortunately, today’s increasingly powerful and power-hungry activists, jurists, legislators and regulators cannot see the connection between their actions and the economic havoc they leave in their wake.
Of course, there is little incentive for them to do so. They know they will rarely be held accountable. Others may freeze jobless in the dark – but most of them will keep their jobs, perks, pensions, positions of power over our lives, economy and civil rights progress.
However, there are bright spots. The upcoming elections offer hope for a general House (and Senate) cleaning. A recent poll found that a third of all Americans don’t want to pay even $12 a year in higher energy costs, even to create “green” jobs or forestall Climate Armageddon. Many people are simply fed up – with Washington, and with constant assertions of imminent eco-catastrophes.
A steady stream of shale-gas discoveries in Europe and the United States suggests that we still have plentiful supplies of cheap natural gas. Evidence is mounting that petroleum is abiogenic in origin – and natural forces deep inside the Earth are constantly creating new hydrocarbons from elemental carbon and hydrogen. Both developments undermine a principle argument for pricey, land-intensive, intermittent wind and solar power: that we are running out of “fossil fuels.”
Just north of the Mojave Desert, near Mountain Pass, California, Molycorp is working to restart mining operations at the largest rare-earth deposit outside of China. They had been suspended in 2002, for economic, permitting and environmental reasons that have since been resolved. China’s Baotou Rare Earth Company was a happy beneficiary of the circumstances and US regulatory excesses.
Now there is hope that common sense will prevail at Mountain Pass, new processing methods will reduce costs and environmental impacts, and exploration may one day be permitted in areas locked up by Cutler & Company. Too many technologies depend on lanthanides to keep US deposits under lock and key.
Radical greens may not give a spotted owl hoot about military needs. But they may care enough about preserving their dream of a hydrocarbon-free future, while a few politicians may want to ensure that tens of billions in taxpayer subsidies for wind and solar power and electric cars don’t all head overseas.