Matthew J. Kiernan is the Founder and Chief Executive of Inflection Point Capital Management
On April 2, 2015, the BBC ran an investigative report that illustrated rare earth mining’s trail of destruction. Whilst it was not the first time that the toxicity of rare earth mining had been the subject of scrutiny, the graphic portrayal of a man-made toxic lake on the outskirts of Baotou in Mongolia, should be a wake-up call for consumers of digital TVs, computers and smart phones, which are the major users of rare earth elements.
BBC’s piece was written by Tim Maughan, who had received support from Unknown Fields Division, an NGO that has a track record of going to the farthest flung regions of the world to uncover hidden secrets. It is estimated that Baotou is the centre of production of half of China’s rare earth elements, with one tonne of rare earth elements producing 2,000 tonnes of toxic waste.
Baotou’s toxic lake raises the important question; how is that such important commodities continue to be mined with such low environmental standards? Rare earth mining has long been dominated by China, which up until recently produced over 90 percent of global production. In a bid to control prices, China introduced export restrictions in 2009 — and banned exports altogether to Japan over a fishing dispute. Whilst the U.S. and Japan fought China in the World Trade Organisation, the price of rare earth elements soared, leading to both a demand and supply response.
Users of rare earths began searching for alternatives whilst new mines were established, including the Molycorp Inc mine in the United States, which received investment from Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation.
The resulting collapse in rare earth prices has now led Molycorp Inc to file for bankruptcy, and is likely to result in continued domination of Chinese producers such Baotou Steel, which is believed to have capacity to supply half the global supply.
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