Environment May 2009

Clean Energy's Dirty Little Secret

Hybrid cars and wind turbines need rare-earth minerals that come with their own hefty environmental price tag.
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Photo by Greg Vojtko/The Press Enterprise

The unincorporated community of Mountain Pass, California, has little to recommend it to tourists. A scraggly outcrop of rocks and Joshua trees alongside Route 15, it has no kitschy landmarks like the 134-foot-tall thermometer that nearby Baker, California, installed in the Mojave Desert, and no casinos like Las Vegas has an hour up the road. But behind a Band-Aid-colored industrial gate lies an attraction of sorts: a 55-acre open-pit mine created by a 21st-century gold rush, one result of the effort to keep the world from getting hotter than it already is.

Mountain Pass’s mine contains a rare-earth ore that yields neodymium, the pixie dust of green tech—necessary for the lightweight permanent magnets that make Prius motors zoom and for the generators that give wind turbines their electrical buzz. In fact, if we are going to make even a few million of the hybrid and electric cars that are supposed to help rescue the planet from global warming, we will need to double production of neodymium in short order.

But in 2006, nearly all of the world’s roughly 137,000-ton supply of rare-earth oxides came from China. And over the past few years, China has cut exports to nurture its own permanent-magnet industry, sending the price of neodymium oxide to a high of $60 a kilo in 2007. This worries analysts like Irving Mintzer, a senior adviser to the Potomac Energy Fund who sees shortages stifling clean-tech industry, and worse. “If we don’t think this through, we could be trading a troubling dependence on Middle Eastern oil for a troubling dependence on Chinese neodymium.”

Rare earths are actually fairly common. What’s rare is finding deposits that can be mined profitably, in part because most contain radioactive thorium. Relatively speaking, Mountain Pass—whose rare-earth deposits were discovered in 1949—is not too radioactive, and through the 1950s the ore was mostly used to make flints for lighters. In the 1960s, the pit grew deeper as demand increased for the rare-earth element europium, which was used to create the red tones in color TVs. In fact, until 1989, the expanding pit at Mountain Pass supplied most of the world’s rare earths.

But in the early 1990s, cheaper Chinese rare earths began eating into the mine’s market share. Deng Xiaoping famously compared China’s abundance of rare earths to the Middle East’s huge oil reserves. As Chinese ore came onto the market, the price fell from $11,700 a ton in 1992 to $7,430 a ton by 1996 (in constant dollars). Amassing strategic supplies suddenly seemed old-fashioned, and the U.S. government began selling off its stocks of minerals.

Mountain Pass couldn’t compete on price alone—especially given the mine’s growing ecological costs. In 1998, chemical processing at the mine was stopped after a series of wastewater leaks. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water carrying radioactive waste spilled into and around Ivanpah Dry Lake.

Mark Smith, the CEO of Molycorp, which bought Mountain Pass in 2000, thinks that the environmental problems that have made the mine’s operation so difficult have largely been resolved, and believes the site can be fully revived. Standing on the edge of what is now a 500-foot-deep pit, he touts his successful negotiations with 18 California regulatory agencies to reopen the mine, and points out some of the company’s newfangled environmental safeguards. (One involves interlocked 18-sided plastic balls floating on standing wastewater pools to limit evaporation and prevent salts from building up after the mine eventually shuts down.) “We want to be environmentally superior, not just compliant. We want to be sustainable and be here for a long time,” he says expansively before talking about opening a permanent-magnet factory employing 900 nearby.

But Smith’s effort to turn Mountain Pass into an environmentally friendly producer—call it the Whole Foods of premium free-range sustainable neodymium—comes with costs his Chinese competitors don’t have to pay: for starters, $2.4 million a year on environmental monitoring and compliance. Will carmakers really be willing to pay more for local minerals and homegrown magnets? “Absolutely,” Smith says, noting that the mine’s historic customers in the U.S. and Japan have given their assurances.

Over the next 30 years, Molycorp is permitted to make its pit 300 feet deeper, which could increase the world’s supply of rare earths by 10 percent or more a year. But the consequences of the nascent green nationalism behind the mine’s revival—a weird amalgam of environmentalism, economics, and national security—will likely be less predictable. Consider the views of the industry analyst Jack Lifton—by no stretch your standard environmental activist (“I don’t give a rat’s ass about global warming”). To protect U.S. industry from supply shocks, he has called on the government to mandate the recycling of strategic minerals. A “bottle bill” for cars, long dismissed as an environmentalist’s dream, is just one possible outcome. Another could be a backlash of resource nationalism in supplier nations like China. As green nationalism’s potent mix of idealism and fear changes the kinds of cars we drive, it also promises to change the course of globalization.

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Lisa Margonelli is a writer on energy and environment. She spent four years and traveled 100,000 miles to write her book, "Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank." More

Lisa Margonelli directs the New America Foundation's Energy Productivity Initiative, which works to promote energy efficiency as a way of ensuring energy security, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and economic security for American families. She spent roughly four years and traveled 100,000 miles to report her book about the oil supply chain, Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, which the American Library Association named one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007. She spent her childhood in Maine where, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, her family heated the house with wood hauled by a horse. Later, fortunately, they got a tractor. The experience instilled a strong appreciation for the convenience of fossil fuels.

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