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ECONOMICS REPORT - US Mining Companies Show New Interest in Rare Earths

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The area near the Molycorp's rare earths mine in Mountain Pass, California
The area near the Molycorp's rare earths mine in Mountain Pass, California

This is the VOA Special English Economics Report.

Today we continue our report on the group of chemical elements known as rare earth metals. These are mined from the earth and used to make technology from mobile phones to missiles.

The United States once led the world in rare earths. Today China controls almost all production. Premier Wen Jiabao says China will not use these metals as a diplomatic weapon. But Japan says exports meant for that country have remained at Chinese ports as a result of a recent dispute.

The United States stopped mining rare earths in two thousand two. Companies blamed environmental rules and low-priced imports from China. But now exploration is moving forward again.

Edward Cowle is president and chief executive of a company called U.S. Rare Earths. He and his partners gained rights to some land in the American West about fifteen years ago. They had been interested in thorium -- a radioactive element that can fuel nuclear reactors but not be processed into weapons.

Mr. Cowle later found that the land also held a lot of rare earth metals -- lately a subject of intense interest.

EDWARD COWLE: "In these two years since we changed our name to Rare Earths, the media attention has been unbelievable."

The company has not started mining yet. It still has to get permits and work with other businesses to put operations in place. Ed Cowle says a lot of work remains.

EDWARD COWLE: "I would say conservatively the earliest that we could open the mine has to be six to seven years."

Another American company is Molycorp. Jim Sims, the public affairs director, says Molycorp has already begun producing three thousand tons of rare earths a year. That makes the United States the world's second largest producer, a distant second.

JIM SIMS: "Molycorp is the western hemisphere's only producer of rare earth products."

The mineral bastnasite can contain 15 or even 17 rare earth metals. But chemically separating the elements is costly and difficult
The mineral bastnasite can contain 15 or even 17 rare earth metals. But chemically separating the elements is costly and difficult

Molycorp says the largest reserves of rare earths outside of China are in its mine in Mountain Pass, California, and in the Mount Weld area of Australia.

Jim Sims says Molycorp spends only about ten percent on mining. The big cost is in chemically separating the rare earths from the minerals that carry them.

JIM SIMS: "Every rare earth deposit on the planet has all fifteen and sometimes all seventeen rare earths."

He says Molycorp raised about three hundred eighty million dollars when it sold stock to the public for the first time in July. The company aims to increase production to twenty thousand tons by two thousand twelve. It says that would more than meet current levels of demand in the United States.

And that's the VOA Special English Economics Report, written by Mario Ritter. I'm Jim Tedder.

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