China Soon May Need to Import Rare Earths, Mining Official Says

China Soon May Need to Import Rare Earths, Official Says
Rare-earth elements have uses ranging from high-end magnets in U.S. weapons to catalysts in petroleum refining. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

China, which controls about 95 percent of global shipments of rare earths, may start importing some of the material to meet rising domestic demand, according to Liu Junhua, a Chinese official.

“China may eventually need to import the materials,” Liu, the deputy secretary for Baotou Rare Earth High-Tech Industrial Development Zone Committee said today in an interview after speaking at the International Rare Earth Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There’s a “strong possibility of importing heavy rare earths” in the next three to four years, he said through an interpreter.

Domestic Chinese demand for rare earths has increased as much as 200 percent in the last 12 months, with almost half of that increase coming since the start of the year, Liu said.

Rare earths are a group of 17 elements; the mines in the Baotou region produce so-called light rare-earths including lanthanum, cerium and samarium. Heavy rare-earth production, concentrated in the south of China, includes the elements dysprosium, gadolinium and terbium.

The Chinese government slashed export quotas by 72 percent in the second half of last year for the elements that have uses ranging from high-end magnets in U.S. weapons to catalysts in petroleum refining. The country has committed to a 35 percent cut in the first half of 2011 from the level a year earlier. Export quotas for the second half of 2011 may be announced only in July, Liu said.

China has about 36 percent of global rare-earth reserves and the U.S. has 13 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Japanese Consumption

Japan, the world’s largest rare-earth importer, saw prices of the materials almost triple last year after China clamped down on exports and also briefly banned shipments to Japan, Furkhat Faizulla, marketing manager, Advanced Material Japan Corp. said at the conference organized by Asian Metal.

Although normal shipments have resumed, the export license fee charged by China has risen to as much as $70 a kilogram from $2 a kilogram last year, Faizulla said: “We are the importers and we see the situation.”

Restricted supply of heavy rare-earths will continue for the next two to five years if China continues its current policies, Faizulla said.

If all other rare-earth mining projects in the world come online as planned, China’s share of global supplies may drop to 70 percent in the next five years from more than 90 percent now, Faizulla said.

New rare-earth projects in development include Molycorp Inc., of Greenwood Village, Colorado, owner of the largest rare-earth deposit outside China; Canada’s Great Western Minerals Group Ltd., of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; and Avalon Rare Metals Inc. of Toronto. Lynas Corp. of Sydney, Australia also is developing projects in the country.

Countering China

U.S. lawmakers including Senators Charles Schumer and Debbie Stabenow today called on President Barack Obama’s administration to block Chinese mining projects as a step to counter China’s curbs on rare-earth exports.

The Democratic lawmakers -- Schumer from New York and Stabenow from Michigan -- said in a statement they would write to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, asking for action.

The senators will ask Geithner to block World Bank funding for any Chinese mining projects, and ask Salazar to prohibit Chinese-funded work in the U.S., according to the statement.

Prices for some rare earths jumped more than 1,000 percent last year because of the restrictions, Molycorp said in December.

Global demand for the elements may more than double by 2020 from 125,000 metric tons last year, according to Molycorp’s filing last month with the Securities and Exchange Commission.