FP Explainer

Are Rare Earth Elements Actually Rare?

Not if you're willing to dig for them.

When Apple's new iPhone debuts later this month, it will be the latest addition to a long list of electronic devices -- ranging from wind turbines to flat-screen TVs -- that rely on rare earth elements, a family of minerals found near the bottom of the periodic table. Rare earth elements are needed to manufacture the consumer electronics for which the world has an exponentially expanding appetite, and are also necessary for green-energy technology like nickel-metal-hydride electric-car batteries. There's just one problem: Almost nobody produces them except the Chinese, and even they may not have enough of them for long. So, are rare earth minerals actually rare?

Not really. The term "rare earth" is an archaic one, dating back to the elements' discovery by a Swedish army lieutenant in 1787. In fact, most (though not all) of the 15 (or 16, or 17, depending on which scientist you're talking to) elements are fairly common; several of them are more abundant in the Earth's crust than lead or nitrogen. The flints in cigarette lighters are made out of rare earths, and they've been used in incandescent gas lamps for more than a century. The stuff has been mined everywhere from Sweden to Southeast Asia to the American West. Even Afghanistan apparently has some.

Today, however, rare-earth mining is almost nonexistent outside China, which came to dominate the market in the 1980s and '90s by cutting world prices and now controls as much as 97 percent of the supply of some of the elements. The United States' only major rare-earth mine, a complex in Mountain Pass, California, that was once the world's leading producer of the minerals, shut down in 2002.

But the limited supply of the minerals in the marketplace is the result of economics and environmental concerns, not scarcity. Even with iPads flying off the shelves and high-end electric cars on showroom floors, the world consumes only a tiny amount of rare earth -- about 130,000 metric tons of it a year, or just over a tenth of the amount of copper produced last February alone. Market forecasters expect the global trade in rare earths to reach $2 billion to $3 billion by 2014, but even that amounts to barely 1 percent of today's iron market. And rare earth elements aren't actually worth very much at the mine -- most of their market value is added in the refining process.

There are also the environmental hazards. Rare-earth mining produces radioactive waste, and dealing with it in the United States and Canada requires a lot of permitting and expensive mitigation efforts -- the sort of thing that puts North American producers at a disadvantage to less scrupulously monitored operations in China. As a result, though prices have jumped in recent years, mining rare earth is still orders of magnitude less lucrative than copper or iron; for the big mining companies, it simply isn't worth the effort.

But the business could become worthwhile for smaller companies in the not-too-distant future, for a few reasons. For one thing, a few rare earth minerals actually are pretty rare. "Light" rare earth elements such as cerium -- an ingredient in enamels and glasses -- are plentiful, but "heavy" ones such as europium -- used produce color in TVs and other screens -- are growing harder to come by. The U.S. Magnet Materials Association predicts that China's own demand for some of the minerals will outstrip its supply in two to five years; pressure to develop the few other known reserves will increase accordingly. The U.S. military -- which relies on imported rare earth elements for lasers, missiles, radar systems, and other technologies -- has also fretted about its dependence on Chinese imports.

An April report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that developing a domestic supply would take seven to 15 years, but a U.S. congressman has introduced a bill that would try to speed things up with federal loan guarantees and other perks for mining companies. At least two North American companies are waiting in the wings: Molycorp Minerals, which bought the Mountain Pass mine in 2000 and hopes to have it up and running again soon, and Avalon Rare Metals, which wants to develop a very large deposit in Canada's Northwest Territories. If prices continue to rise, it could be enough for a handful of these smaller operators to turn a profit -- though probably not enough for anyone to tell stories of the Great Praseodymium Rush of 2011.

Thanks to Jack Lifton of Technology Metals Research, Virginia Morgan of Avalon Rare Metals, and David Trueman.

Got a question for the FP Explainer? Email explainer [at] foreignpolicy.com.

Photo © Heinrich Pniok

FP Explainer

Can the White House Revoke a Reporter’s Credentials?

Not really.

Today, after 50 years of covering the White House, Hearst newspapers columnist Helen Thomas announced her retirement after the widespread outrage that followed the release of a video in which she says that Jews in Israel should "go back to Germany and Poland." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Thomas's remarks "offensive and reprehensible." But if the 89-year-old Thomas had insisted on remaining, could the White House have forced her out of the press corps?

Probably not. To get accredited for the White House, a reporter first needs to be approved for a congressional press pass by the Standing Committee of Correspondents, elected by accredited reporters. (A notable exception to this rule was Jeff Gannon of the conservative website Talon News, who was repeatedly allowed to ask -- usually friendly -- questions during the George W. Bush administration's White House press briefings despite never being given a congressional pass. Gannon's presence in the press room became a minor scandal when liberal bloggers revealed that he had posted X-rated pictures of himself on the Internet and had worked as a gay escort.)

Among other requirements, congressional reporters must demonstrate that they work for a publication whose "principal business is the daily dissemination of original news and opinion of interest to a broad segment of the public" and is "editorially independent of any institution, foundation or interest group that lobbies the federal government." The White House also requires an additional Secret Service background check. The White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA), a professional association of journalists who cover the president, is not involved in the credentialing process, and White House reporters are not required to be WHCA members.

Once you've got the pass, you can renew it every year without additional scrutiny. More than 2,000 reporters have "hard passes" to the White House, though the vast majority don't work out of the building every day and the briefing room seats just 50 people, with standing room for about another 30.

Because administrations generally don't want to be seen as deciding who is or isn't a qualified journalist, it's unheard of for a reporter to be suspended for the quality of his or her reporting or behavior, though there are a few notable cases of reporters being barred for security reasons.

The Nation's Robert Sherrill was denied Secret Service clearance during Lyndon Johnson's administration on the grounds that he posed a physical threat to the president. (He had gotten into a few fistfights with government officials earlier in his career.) Sherrill went on to cover the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations as the Nation's White House correspondent despite being barred from the building. Even after the American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged Sherrill's barring in federal court, he didn't bother to get a pass, saying he had better things to do than "sitting around for some dumb [expletive] to give a press conference."

Another reporter who fell afoul of White House security rules was Trude Feldman, a longtime freelancer for a number of mostly Jewish newspapers who covered every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. Feldman was famous for her softball interview style -- she irritated other correspondents by scoring a rare interview with Bill Clinton at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and asking him such probing questions as, "How will you strive to be a better president as well as a global leader?" Feldman was suspended from the White House for 90 days in 2001 after security cameras caught her rifling through a press aide's desk late at night. Feldman returned, eventually retiring in 2007.

The White House may frown on trespassing, but assaulting fellow reporters is apparently tolerated. Notorious press room eccentric Naomi Nover inherited a hard pass from her husband, a former Denver Post reporter, in 1973 and paid her own way on nearly every presidential trip abroad until her death in 1995 despite never actually doing any reporting. Once, during the Carter administration, she began swinging her handbag at Baltimore Sun correspondent Carl Leubsdorf, whom she thought had been laughing at her. Some years later, the 4'11'' Nover whacked Los Angeles Times photographer Bernie Boston, who was blocking her view of Ronald Reagan and Mother Theresa, with an umbrella.

Other dubious press corps veterans include Baltimore radio host Les Kinsolving, who covers the White House for the conspiratorially minded website WorldNetDaily. On the rare occasions when he gets called on, Kinsolving is known for launching into opinionated diatribes that only occasionally take the form of questions. Lately he has become fixated on the authenticity of President Barack Obama's birth certificate. Kinsolving bills himself on his own website as "one of the few who has the guts to ask probing questions and even providing [sic] comic relief."

Another unusual fixture is Indian journalist Raghubir Goyal, who reports on the White House for the India Globe, a publication whose website contains no content. Goyal is known for asking lengthy questions about India policy, particularly on Kashmir, no matter what else is going on in the world. He became known as "Goyal the Foil" during the Bush administration because of Press Secretary Scott McClellan's habit of calling on him when facing tough questions from other reporters. Goyal recently raised some eyebrows by asking Gibbs about the Obama administration's stance on yoga.

Thanks to the White House Correspondents Association

Got a question for the FP Explainer? Email explainer [at] foreignpolicy.com.