U.S. Geological Survey: China’s Rare-Earth Industry
Rare-earth minerals are essential to the production of high-tech items such as smart phones and laptops, and they are being increasingly utilized for a variety of purposes in the defense and clean energy sectors. These include elements such as lanthanum, used in camera lenses; praseodymium, for lasers and magnets; and promethium, used in atomic batteries.
With some 95% of the production of all rare-earth minerals, China remains the dominant player globally. This decisive natural resources advantage continues to prompt worries in the United States, Japan and the European Union. A 2011 report issued by the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Department of the Interior, “China’s Rare-Earth Industry” (PDF), outlines the basic facts and industry trends within China and examines national policies that may guide the future.
The report’s findings include:
- Though the production of rare-earth minerals takes place in many regions and provinces within China, the Nei Mongol Automonous Region, or Inner Mongolia, accounted for 50-60% of output over the past 10 years. Sichuan Province accounted for 24-30%.
- China’s lead in the production of rare-earth minerals has accelerated over the past two decades. In 1990, China accounted for only 27% of such minerals. In 2009, world production was 132,000 metric tons; China produced 129,000 of those tons.
- The Chinese government sets annual quotas, and policy regulating production is tightly controlled: “In 1990, the Chinese Government declared rare earths to be a protected and strategic mineral. As a consequence, foreign investors are prohibited from mining rare earths and are restricted from participating in rare-earth smelting and separation projects except in joint ventures with Chinese firms.”
- Recent patterns suggest that China will slow the export of such materials to the world: “Owing to the increase in domestic demand, the Government has gradually reduced the export quota during the past several years.” In 2006, China allowed 47 domestic rare-earth producers and traders and 12 Sino-foreign rare-earth producers to export. Controls have since tightened annually; by 2011, only 22 domestic rare-earth producers and traders and 9 Sino-foreign rare-earth producers were authorized.
- The government’s future policies will likely keep in place strict controls: “According to China’s draft rare-earth development plan, annual rare-earth production may be limited to between 130,000 and 140,000 [metric tons] during the period from 2009 to 2015. The export quota for rare-earth products may be about 35,000 [metric tons] and the Government may allow 20 domestic rare-earth producers and traders to export rare earths.”
Tags: technology, economy, telecommunications
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the U.S. Geological Survey report "China’s Rare-Earth Industry" (PDF).
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related New York Times article "Supplies Squeezed, Rare Earth Prices Surge."
- If you were to write a sidebar to accompany this article, which key points from the U.S. Geological Survey report would you highlight?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.