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Rare earth metals and the not-so-clean energy economy

The extraction, transport and burning of fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – are directly responsible for widespread environmental devastation. The struggle over control of these resources has also long been a major cause of international conflict.

But let’s look to the future. The shift to a “clean energy economy” based on solar, wind and other renewable power sources has finally begun. True, it is too slow and too late to avert some disasters arising from climate change. But surely there is reason to hope that renewable energy will eventually bring us relief from war and pollution?      

Not necessarily. Sun, wind and tides are hardly in short supply, but there are certain areas where conditions are best for harnessing their power. It is conceivable that conflict will arise over control of these areas.

Rare earths

A more immediate issue concerns some of the material resources required to generate renewable energy and produce machines that run on such energy. In particular, our masters are currently very worried about ensuring adequate and stable supplies of the 17 elements known as “rare earth metals”. Due to their special properties, these metals have numerous crucial uses in high-tech industrial, medical, scientific, military and computer equipment. Their “clean energy” applications include the manufacture of magnets for wind turbines, energy-efficient fluorescent lamps, and batteries for hybrid and electric cars.

The metallic elements themselves are not all that rare in the planet’s crust, but they are highly dispersed. It is the soils (earths) containing concentrated mineral ores that are relatively rare, though they have been found in several parts of the world, such as South Africa, India, Vietnam, Australia and North America. Currently, however, China has a near-monopoly on the extraction of rare earth metals, controlling about 95% of global supply – and for certain elements over 99%.

Potential for conflict

In September 2010, China suspended exports of rare earth metals to Japan after a Chinese trawler fishing in disputed waters in the East China Sea collided with Japanese Coast Guard vessels and its captain was detained. He was soon released and exports resumed. The incident prompted hack Paul Krugman to castigate China as a dangerous and irresponsible “rogue economic superpower” (The New York Times, Oct. 17).

More significant is the long-term trend for China to place increasingly strict limits on exports of rare earth metals to all countries. In 2009 it became known that the Chinese government was planning to ban exports of five especially rare elements altogether. Under strong pressure from Western governments and corporations, the ban was replaced by annual quotas.

Despite the accusations that China is exploiting its near-monopoly to bully other countries, its main reason for restricting exports is probably a desire to give priority to satisfying rapidly rising domestic demand, fuelled by China’s own technological development. The US and other countries have responded to the situation by urgently exploring and developing alternative sources of supply. Nevertheless, there is clearly a growing potential here for international conflict (whether involving China or not), especially as the shift to the “clean energy economy” gathers pace.

Toxic sludge

The mining and processing of rare earths is an extremely dirty process. Refining them to extract pure metals requires the use of toxic acids. Ores are often radioactive due to the presence of uranium and thorium. The disposal of toxic waste is an enormous problem.  

Almost half (45%) of the current world output of rare earth metals comes from a mine in the town of Baotou Obo, part of the larger mining district of Baotou in Inner Mongolia. Baotou is right on the Yellow River, on which much of North China depends for water. The Baotou section of the river is already contaminated with copper, lead, zinc and cadmium (Fan Qingyun et al., Chemical Speciation and Bioavailability, June 2008).

The waste from the rare earth metal mine in Baotou Obo – a radioactive sludge laced with toxic compounds – is pumped into a reservoir (10 square kilometers in area) surrounded by an earthen embankment. If (when?) there is an accident similar to what happened in October 2010 in Hungary, where another reservoir of toxic sludge burst its banks, this mass of poisonous goo will engulf local residents and pour into the Yellow River, further enriching its chemical composition.

Not so clean

On close examination, therefore, the “clean energy economy” turns out to be not so clean after all. Renewable energy may still be a big improvement on fossil fuels, but in itself it will solve neither the problem of war nor that of environmental devastation.

What will be the policy of socialist society regarding the use of rare earth metals? What will be done with the waste? Or will people somehow manage without these substances?

Socialism will mitigate the problem in a number of ways. Less material will be required because there will be no built-in obsolescence: equipment will be made to last for very long periods. And, of course, there will be no production of military equipment. Without the imperative to maximise profits, much higher priority can be given to protecting the environment.

Yet mitigating a problem is not the same as solving it. What if the supply of a certain material is essential to the satisfaction of human needs, but no technical means can be found of extracting it without serious harm to the environment? Even the people of socialist society are likely to find themselves facing hard choices.

The Socialist Standard, No. 1281, May 2011

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