Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Desert Tidbits: Rare Earths

A group of elements known as "rare earths" have become increasingly important -- and expensive -- as their use in high-technology manufacturing processes continues to rise. For example: they are critical to the manufacture of flat-screen monitors, wind turbines, certain batteries, and aerospace alloys. 

Heretofore, almost all of the world's production has come from China.

China has recently begun squeezing off rare earth exports, hoping to bolster its own manufacturing sector. This has driven rare earth prices through the roof, permitting windfall profits for the quantities it does continue to export. 

Of course, China doesn't explicitly say this. Instead, China cites "environmental concerns" as the reason why rare earth exports have been so severely curtailed.

We all know how environmentally concerned the Middle Kingdom happens to be.

Nevertheless, rare earth mining and extraction continues to be one of the most environmentally unfriendly activities we engage in -- tantamount to an environmental horror.

As it happens, what was once the world's largest source of rare earths is not far from where I sit, in a place called Mountain Pass, a few miles from the Nevada border. The mine there was closed in 2002, because of legitimate environmental concerns, and until the Chinese made their move, nobody could justify the cost of cleaning it up.

A firm known as Molycorp now intends to re-open the mine, in 2011. To accomplish this, they are engaging in new speak, calling rare earths "green elements." 

If you follow their logic, it will be impossible to decrease reliance on foreign oil without resort to alternative energies like wind and solar. However, since wind and solar are "rare earth dependent technologies," it will be impossible to decrease reliance on foreign oil without, once again, screwing up the desert for all time by engaging in the world's most dangerous and toxic mining processes.

As I have mentioned several times in the past, most people see the desert as a place of death anyway, and say, "Who cares?" They throw up their hands, then run off to save the whales or hug the trees, thinking themselves environmentalists.

Actually, the deserts of this world are every bit as important as the forests  and oceans of this world in maintaining the fragile balance of life on earth. If we allow our deserts to be damaged beyond repair through some environmental sleight-of-hand, it will have an effect every bit as terrible as that disaster down in the Gulf.

Ours is not so much an oil addiction as it is an energy addiction -- an addiction based on blind greed for more, more, and more. It is a sad truth that all of our environmental trade-offs are based on that concept of "more," when what we should really be thinking about is "less."

And hey... rattlesnakes and scorpions need love, too.

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6 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

What an insightful post. It is scary to think what will happen in the next few years if we can not turn the tide of energy addiction and corporate greed toward love -- love of the planet and all of it's inhabitants.

Anonymous said...

I once went with a group of people and MingurRinpoche to a mountain glen in the center of the US. The westerners wanted him to bless the land so that oil extraction would not occur there. Someone astutely said "in the future oil prices will become so high that only the rich will fly to tibet." Needless to say there was no blessing only a hike. I could only think later that it was unlikely that any one had requested blessings for the desert creatures. I've also always figured that the mineral reserves were the main impetus for the Chinese taking Tibet.

Cliff said...

Scorpions, snakes... Yes!

Malcolm Smith said...

" I've also always figured that the mineral reserves were the main impetus for the Chinese taking Tibet."

No, It was mostly the water.

TENPA said...

That is absolutely correct, Malcolm. Not for nothing are all those dams being built.

Anonymous said...

Oriental despotism? Besides being a simplistic explanation for how those eastern Others live, it's also all about the water (and, I'd add, the rarer elements).