The Global Push for REEs

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"China realized the value REE extraction long ago."

Bautou may look like a quiet, unassuming city in the middle of Inner Mongolia. But the home to two million finds itself in the middle of a global controversy. Bautou is the center of China's rare earth element (REE) production.

You don't have to dig that deep to find that rare earths aren't actually that rare. They're just difficult to extract and can often be environmentally difficult. China realized that REEs were worth the effort long ago, accelerating production under the late Deng Xiaoping. He used to compare China's rare earths to Saudi Arabia's oil.

Yet the U.S. moved in the opposite direction for years. Once the world's leading producer, it now mines none of it, mostly because of onerous environmental regulations. The government has begun to look into starting up again. But that means little for now.

In April, the Government Accounting Office reported that rebuilding the nation's rare earth supply chain could take up to 15 years. And, according to the same source, the U.S. needs patents currently held by foreign companies.

Perhaps the country can learn something from Japan, the world's biggest rare earths consumer. It has no supplies of its own though, so it's searching elsewhere. . .without waiting for study results.

This makes sense since most geologists think up to two-thirds of the world's deposits of rare earths lie unexploited, outside of China. That's a good thing too, given it uses much of the REEs it extracts for its own burgeoning high-tech industries.

As China grows, it will have less and less to sell to other countries. Recognizing this, Japanese companies have taken to scouring Canada, India, Australia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Brazil and Mongolia to find the next big deposits.

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