Global Risks, Local Risks: The Toxic Legacy of Rare Earth Metals

Below I look at how the mining and extraction of rare earth metals creates environmental, social and geopolitical risks.

Deep in the remote western province of Inner Mongolia a vast dark lake is fed by a black toxic sludge trickling from metal pipes. Metal towers rising from countless refineries and coal power stations puncture the grey sky. From the towers sulphur, diesel, and solvent fumes rise and mix in the air to create a noxious toxic soup, all inhaled by Baotou’s two and half million residents. Nearly all of Baotou’s population settled there in the last twenty years, lured by a modern day gold rush.

Baotou and its surrounding mines is the fountainhead of a global supply chain which provides the crucial components of the modern world’s essential technology.

Rare earth metals are in fact found in relative abundance in the earth. The “rare” comes from the difficultly in chemically extracting them from other metals which they are clumped together with. This often involves dissolving them in the likes of sulphuric and nitric acid The byproduct of this is large amounts of toxic waste that have made cities like Baotou and others a public health hazard.

Rare earth metals occupy the lower reaches of the periodic table and includes the likes of lanthanum, cerium, scandium, terbium. Apart from the periodic table earth metals are connected by their importance in modern manufacturing.

Rare earth metals have properties such as magnetism, heat resistance and phosphorescence which make them indispensable for certain applications. Rare earth metals are crucial for smart phones, wind turbines, electric batteries, laptops and many modern defence applications.

Rare Earth Metal Geopolitics

Because China controls around 80% of the global supply of rare earth metals there is a strong geopolitical undercurrent involved in mining them. China hosts the majority of the world’s extraction facilities which appear to give it effective control of the global market. However, the 80 percent figures can be deceptive as this means the supply of processed metals.

China does not control 80 percent the world’s deposits. Other countries such as Australia, Myanmar, Russia, Greenland and many others have large reserves of rare metals.

China could if it chose order the halt of rare earth metal exports which would cause the buyers major supply problems. China strongly encouraged the development of rare earth metal mining and processing, its relative lack of environmental controls and cheap labour force put much of the rest of the world out of business.

Mining rare earth metals raises a wide range of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues and digging for rare earth metals are no different.

ESG Risk

Environmentally: the process of extraction is extremely costly unless it is done with no regard for the environment. Mining in China has left huge scars in the landscape and a legacy of dangerous ammonia and nitrate compounds along with many other dangerous chemicals in the ground.

Mining rare earth metals can also leave dangerous metals like lead and cadmium, other mines have been dug near uranium deposits. All this exposes miners and those living nearby to major health impacts, skin cancer and respiratory issues.

Socially: mining can have a profound impact local communities. Mining and the refining process can destroy landscapes and even uproot communities thanks to the setting up of the mine and the waste products created by refineries. Once land is identified as holding valuable metals or minerals it becomes much more valuable and without protections there is a risk that miners will steal or contaminate the land and drive indigenous people away.

Governance: the promise of mineral riches can distort local politics and create the temptation for illegal or unregulated mining. Illegal mining is unregulated so the chances it will cause pollution and environmental destruction are much higher.

For example the remote Kachin province in Myanmar has been the scene of a long running battle between the Government and local groups.

Can China’s Rare Earth Dominance be challenged?

While China has the lion’s share of processing capacity, other nations are looking to increase their capacity. Hull in the UK has been discussed as a potential new site of a new plant and the EU is looking to set up a raw materials alliance to ensure the sustainable supply and processing of rare earth metals.

If China moves to stop the export of rare earth metals other countries could rely on their stockpiles until new plants and supply chains could be created. The US and China have tiptoed around the issue of rare metals, leaving them aside in the trade war which has simmered over the Trump years.

Texan firm Blue Line announced in 2019 they would be working with an Australian firm to set up a new independent manufacturing centre. The Pentagon is funding MP Materials to reopen the Mountain Pass site in the US where it will mine for rare earth metals.

Western nations are clearly concerned about the heavy reliance on China as a provider. Rare earth metals represent an easily broken supply chain and while there are short term fixes, avoiding reliance on a geopolitical rival makes sense.

Australian firm Greenland minerals acquired control of the controversial Kvanefeld Project from Chinese investors. Kvanfeld looks set to be a major rare earth metal project in Southern Greenland.

The mine has faced major local opposition, but the government have given the green light to a public consultation period ending in March 2021. Supporters of the project claim it will bring jobs to a depressed area but detractors point to the prospect of environmental despoliation.

Russia also plans to ramp up its rare earth sector. It is estimated the country holds around 10 percent of global reserves but has a list of 11 potential projects which could make Russia self-sufficient and eventually an exporter of rare earth metals.

Recycling Solution

The long-term solution to the dangers of mining and extracting rare earth will come through recycling them from old equipment. Unfortunately, rare earth metals are often found in consumer goods such as phones and computers which are thrown away with alarming regularity but rarely recycled often because people are unaware or unable to do so.

There is probably more hope in recycling rare earth metals from industrial uses such as wind turbines. Increasing the cost of extracting the metals in the first place through tougher environmental protections will also raise incentives to recycle.

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