Sunday, October 31, 2010

Renewable is clean, right?

Ahh. Ride our bikes to work. Drive a hybrid. Put solar panels on the roof and a wind farm on the ridges. Fill up the blue recycling bin instead of the black garbage can and eat low, and locally, on the food chain. All good stuff. Pat ourselves on the back for being proud stewards of the environment. Um...what was that rattling around in the closet like Jacob Marley in his chains?Could it be the sound of our future, having taken advantage of all those Chinese miners and factory workers providing us all those renewables? We should worry, and not just because of the plight of that Chinese miner.

The recent Chinese "embargo" of rare-earth elements (REE) to Japan, and therefore to the U.S. and the West, has caused quite a stir. As has China's attempts to gobble up ownership of REE abroad, including both mining and manufacturing, in the US and Australia.  REE, aside from their critical use in geochemical modelling (which is why I know just a little bit about them), are critical chemical components in a lot of renewable and "green" energy projects such as solar panels, wind farms, and hybrid cars and are therefore a clean energy and a national security issue. For example, a Prius gobbles up about 10-15 kg of REE, according to this source.

Once again, we are beholden to China, which produces over 90% of the world's supplies (see links above and the figure caption below). So why does China control the market? According to the Christian Science Monitor, "Although the US and other countries served as major sources for rare earth minerals for 50 years, China's low labor costs and lax environmental rules allow it to produce both raw and refined minerals at much lower costs than elsewhere."

So once again, we have traded energy security and jobs for cheap prices. It is apparently OK to build bicycles and mine REE in China, allowing Chinese air and water to be polluted and Chinese miners to die, as long as we can save a few bucks in the short run. In the long run, we lose further ground in high technologies and eventually become utterly vulnerable to economic blackmail. That's pathetic.

So I guess China will force us to mine REE here at home, assuming they don't buy up our mines before we even put a shovel in the ground.... But mining REE is not pretty, which is why some so-called "environmentalists" don't bitch too loudly as long as it is done in China. I can hardly wait for the environmental protection lawsuits to begin once we start digging up and processing those Thorium and Uranium (gasp!) bearing REE deposits here in the USA.

You want clean energy? Someone's gotta do the dirty work. If the benefits of a REE mine and processing plant in the US outweigh the costs, it needs to be done. I think those costs are worth paying. The alternative is a once great nation with an economic, and eventually a literal, gun to its head.
Rick Sixberry, operations general foreman at Molycorp Minerals Mountain Pass rare-earth element mine in Mountain Pass, California, surveys the open pit August 19, 2009.
Photo: David Becker 

Mountain Pass Geology explained here.

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