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Election: China Plays Big Role in Rare Earths, Too

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Source: League of Women Voters

With just over a week left in this year’s presidential election, all eyes are focused on Ohio, Florida and a few other battleground states. Many of the themes that kept cropping up in this year’s live debates–China, the economy  and regulation–can also be found in the next-to-last of the 14 ScienceDebate questions, on the rare earth elements that are needed for laptops, cell phones and other advanced electronics. Although the candidates did not debate these questions in person, their campaigns did provide written responses.

And so, without further ado, here is the question, the way President Barack Obama and Governor Romney answered it and, for the first time, how Scientific American graded their responses.

Question 13. Critical Natural Resources. Supply shortages of natural resources affect economic growth, quality of life, and national security; for example China currently produces 97% of rare earth elements needed for advanced electronics. What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?

Barack Obama’s Response:

Rare earth elements and other critical minerals are used by American manufacturers to make high-tech products like the advanced batteries that power everything from hybrid cars to cell phones. My support for the development alternatives to rare earth materials is helping to ensure we have the materials necessary to propel our high-technology economy forward.

Being able to manufacture competitive products in America is too important for us to stand by and do nothing. We’ve got to take control of our energy future, and we can’t let the energy industry take root in other countries because they are allowed to break the rules. That’s why we have joined with Japan and some of our European allies to bring a trade case against China for imposing restrictions on their exports of rare earth materials.

Part of our strategy is also to use the natural resources we have more efficiently, so we are less reliant on other countries in the first place. To achieve that, I have invested in a series of innovative projects to decrease our reliance on rare earth material and unveiled a federal strategy to promote U.S.-based electronics recycling to keep American manufactures competitive. We are also launching a new, multidisciplinary energy innovation research “hub” to advance our leadership in manufacturing products that rely on rare earth materials and other critical materials. The hub — which will bring together scientists, materials specialists, and others – will aim to develop efficiencies and alternatives that reduce the amount of rare earths that we need as well as develop strategies to ensure that we have a reliable supply of rare earths and other critical materials going forward.

 

Mitt Romney’s Response:

The United States was once self-sufficient in its production of critical natural resources like rare-earth minerals. But a decline in production, driven more by regulation than by economics or scarcity, has left the nation reliant on imports. The key to guaranteeing the quality and availability of these resources is a modernized regulatory regime that protects the environment while providing access to the inputs that our economy requires to grow and thrive.

Energy provides a good example. Reliance on foreign oil imports has long been seen as an insurmountable challenge but, as noted above, extraordinary technological breakthroughs in the private sector have placed America at the edge of an energy revolution that has the potential to dramatically expand domestic production and achieve energy independence on the continent by the end of the decade. The federal government must open greater access to federal lands, and adopt streamlined regulatory processes that encourage rather than stifle resource development.

As the first element of my plan for energy independence, I have proposed giving states authority to manage the development of energy resources within their borders, including on federal lands. States have crafted highly efficient and effective permitting and regulatory programs that address state-specific needs. For instance, while the federal government takes an average of 307 days to permit the drilling of an oil well on federal land, the state of North Dakota can permit a project in ten days. Colorado does it in twenty-seven. Nor do these processes pose any greater environmental risks. To the contrary, from oil and gas and coal to wind and solar and biofuels, states are far better able to develop, adopt, and enforce regulations based on their unique resources, geology, and local concerns.

By adopting creative approaches like these to the development of all the nation’s resources, America can benefit fully from its extraordinary natural endowments.

SA declared the candidates’ answers a tie on this question for the following reasons:

OBAMA indicates that the best way to reduce dependence on China’s rare-earth elements is to recycle products (to recapture the minerals) and to design future products that do not rely so heavily on them. Those strategies can help, but Obama is silent on domestic supply, which centers on the Mountain Pass mine in California. Unocal, now part of Chevron, ran the mine for decades but closed it in 2002 when faced with lowball prices from expanding Chinese suppliers and with stiffer state regulations on its radioactive wastewater. A new owner, Molycorp, reopened the mine in 2012.

ROMNEY hits this question head-on, stating that the U.S. could supply its own rare-earth elements if it “modernized” environmental regulations, which he blames for shutting down the Mountain Pass mine (although he does not name it). He also advocates letting states “manage the development of energy resources within their borders, including on federal lands.” Romney says that plan would benefit all forms of energy, but its effects would fall mainly on oil, natural gas and coal.

Next Friday, we’ll look at the last ScienceDebate question, on vaccination.

To read the candidates’ answers to all 14 questions, click here. To find out how Scientific American rated all the answers, click here.  (SA’s full analysis of the responses, along with a terrific article by Shawn Lawrence Otto on “America’s Science Problem,” appeared in the November issue, which we released last week.)

For more on how China cornered the rare earths market, see this April 25 article in Foreign Affairs.

Election 2012 button used under Creative Commons license BY 2.0.

Update (November 2, 2012): An earlier version of this post inadvertently included  question #14 and the candidates’ answers’ about vaccines.

About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. sijodk 4:54 pm 10/27/2012

    Umm… The question and answers is about vaccination and healthcare and the analysis is about rare earths. Which one is it?

    Link to this
  2. 2. N49th 11:33 am 10/29/2012

    Rare earths was the subject of this blog.
    Vaccinations (written in Italics) is the subject of the next blog.
    sijodk, given technology, I can’t tell if you are a person or a dog.
    Are you being paid in dollars or kiblets.
    If the answer is the latter please woof.

    Link to this
  3. 3. greenhome123 1:59 am 11/1/2012

    Neither candidate answered the vaccination question in regards to if they support enforcement of vaccinations. My opinion is that the best method of enforcing vaccinations is to require that children be vaccination if they would like to attend public school. In regards to the rare earth elements, I don’t see either candidates response, only the Scientific American’s opinion of their response. I believe we should keep our current environmental regulations while at the same time offer subsidies to U.S. companies who are able to mine rare earth metals in the U.S. in an environmentally friendly manner, so that our US mined rare earth metals are competitive with imported Chinese rare earth metals.

    Link to this

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