PRC Rare Earth Metal Hoarding: Fake Trade Issue?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,,,, at 7/06/2011 12:03:00 AM
Given several new developments, today's a mighty fine time to update our coverage [1, 2] of worldwide rare earth metal availability provided its importance to modern industrial production. Beginning a year and a half ago, the US, EU and Mexico filed related WTO cases [DS 394, 395 and 398 respectively] challenging the PRC's use of quotas, export duties and licence requirements to limit exports of rare earth metals required in many high-technology products. With 95-97% of these metals emanating from the PRC at the present time, it is not a trivial problem for various manufacturing concerns abroad that rely on their supply. Although the PRC has claimed that environmental protection and conservation were the grounds for limiting exports, such claims have been undermined by largely unfettered access by local firms to these rare earth metals. The NY Times cheat sheet above graphically illustrates China's dominant position in sourcing these valuable materials.

To make a long story short, China has just been found in violation of trade rules via a ruling from the WTO's dispute settlement mechanism. Bloomberg offers a summary. The naturally pleased US Trade Representative claims victory while offering this version of what has just transpired:
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced today that a World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement panel has agreed with the United States, finding that export restraints imposed by China on several important industrial raw materials are inconsistent with China’s WTO obligations. China’s actions were not justified as conservation measures, environmental protection measures, or short supply measures. The raw materials at issue include various forms of bauxite, coke, fluorspar, magnesium, manganese, silicon carbide, silicon metal, yellow phosphorus, and zinc, and are used in a multitude of downstream applications in the steel, aluminum and chemicals industries...

The export restraints challenged in this dispute include export quotas and export duties, as well as related minimum export price, export licensing, and export quota administration requirements. These types of export restraints can skew the playing field against the United States and other countries in the production and export of numerous processed steel, aluminum and chemical products and a wide range of further processed products. The export restraints can artificially increase world prices for these raw material inputs while artificially lowering prices for Chinese producers. This enables China’s domestic downstream producers to produce lower-priced products from the raw materials and thereby creates significant advantages for China’s producers when competing against U.S. and other producers both in China’s market and other countries’ markets. The export restraints can also create substantial pressure on foreign downstream producers to move their operations and, as a result, their technologies to China.
The USTR's claims on "market distortion" grounds are straightforward: the Chinese are responsible for rare earth metal shortages worldwide that disadvantage foreign firms by limiting their availability while raising their prices. However, local producers do not face similar limitations. What's more, perhaps consistent with China's wish to be on the technological leading edge via knowledge transfer, such limitations encourage foreign manufacturers to bypass such restrictions by locating in the Middle Kingdom.

But is that all there is to this story? While the US, EU and Mexico chose the route of litigation to free up more supplies from China, Japan appears to have found a (potentially) superior solution: get these materials from non-PRC sources. And so we have another tale hot off the presses touting Japan's newfound sources that both cut out China and make these metals appear less rare than at first glance. Instead of being in Inner Mongolia, these finds are under the sea:
Vast deposits of rare earth minerals, crucial in making high-tech electronics products, have been found on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and can be readily extracted, Japanese scientists said on Monday. "The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one square kilometer (0.4 square mile) of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption," said Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo.

The discovery was made by a team led by Kato and including researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. They found the minerals in sea mud extracted from depths of 3,500 to 6,000 meters (11,500-20,000 ft) below the ocean surface at 78 locations. One-third of the sites yielded rich contents of rare earths and the metal yttrium, Kato said in a telephone interview.

The deposits are in international waters in an area stretching east and west of Hawaii, as well as east of Tahiti in French Polynesia, he said. [Kato] estimated rare earths contained in the deposits amounted to 80 to 100 billion tonnes, compared to global reserves currently confirmed by the U.S. Geological Survey of just 110 million tonnes that have been found mainly in China, Russia and other former Soviet countries, and the United States.
We then return to the geopolitics of it all:
A chronic shortage of rare earths, vital for making a range of high-technology electronics, magnets and batteries, has encouraged mining projects for them in recent years. China, which accounts for 97 percent of global rare earth supplies, has been tightening trade in the strategic metals, sparking an explosion in prices. Japan, which accounts for a third of global demand, has been stung badly, and has been looking to diversify its supply sources, particularly of heavy rare earths such as dysprosium used in magnets.

Kato said the sea mud was especially rich in heavier rare earths such as gadolinium, lutetium, terbium and dysprosium. "These are used to manufacture flat-screen TVs, LED (light-emitting diode) valves, and hybrid cars," he said.
As you would expect, there are qualifiers. First, Japan is not free and clear to mine them unlike if they were in its exclusive economic zone, i.e. its territorial waters. If it wishes to abide by international law which I presume it does, then it will have to consult with UNCLOS authorities--and likely with other countries which have manufacturing interests such as the litigants mentioned above. The Economist offers this take on potential complications:
Seafloor mining beyond countries’ territorial waters is regulated by the International Seabed Authority, set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. So far it has issued only eight licences, all for exploration, not production, all for nodules, not massive-sulphide deposits, and all to governmental or quasi-governmental agencies (of China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and an east European consortium). No wonder. Commercial miners want both a clear title to their holding and exclusive rights to exploit it. They also have to answer to shareholders.
Second, there are likely more technical obstacles to deep sea mining and, third, its environmental sustainability than the Japanese let on. From Nature News:
Current on-land mines, and sites picked out for future mines, have rare-earth concentrations of about 3–10%, he points out [whereas those found by the Japan researchers are in the 0.1-0.2% range]. The much lower concentrations at the Chinese clay mine mentioned by Kato and his colleagues are only economically viable because the material is much easier to access than it would be in hard rock. That's not true for mud located below 4 or 5 kilometres of water, which would require expensive ship time and equipment to pull up. "There are better options," he says.

Craig Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, notes that companies are exploring the idea of mining manganese nodules from the sea floor to exploit their commercially-valuable contents, including copper and nickel as well as rare earths. Commercial mining of nodules is "probably a decade away", says Smith. Ocean mud could prove another possible source of the increasingly valuable elements.

Smith and others have raised concerns about the environmental consequences of deep-sea mining, particularly around hydrothermal vents, which host unique worms, clams and other life. Kato points out that gathering the metals from mud won't involve disturbing the vents; he found the highest concentrations of rare-earth elements thousands of kilometres away from vents. Closer than that, the rare earths were diluted by other deposits. But Smith notes that sea-floor life away from vents could also be fragile. Ecosystems on the cold ocean floor regenerate very slowly, he says, so any damage done by mining could take decades or centuries to heal.
Qualifiers and all, it's a potentially significant discovery. Whether Japan itself stands to benefit from this find is a matter of interpretation concerning the law of the sea and the state of deep sea mining technology. (If you're further interested, io9 has a map depicting where these deposits lie as per the Nature Geoscience article.)

Returning to the main story, China also has the opportunity to appeal the WTO ruling, though I firmly believe that the PRC's claims are covers for protectionism plain and simple. Perhaps other countries ramping up the capacity to mine rare earth metals on land will be more viable than either the route of litigation or deep sea mining. That said, China being alone in continuing large-scale mining of such resources remains a testament to its foresight and long-term planning. In a way, it's being punished for being resourceful, dubious PRC claims at the WTO notwithstanding.