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A stalk of wild grass grows off soil from an old site of a rare earth metals mine on the outskirts of Longnan county
Reuters/Jason Lee
Life struggles to grow in the toxic soil left by rare earth element mining.
RARE EARTHS

The Green New Deal is missing some vital elements—and will fail without them

Roger Turner
By Roger Turner

Research fellow at the Science History Institute

A new generation of Democratic leaders has finally responded to what scientists have said for decades: Climate change is an existential threat that must be addressed now. The failure of earlier politicians to act means we urgently need big spending and dramatic interventions to avoid catastrophic effects on the stability of the climate. This month’s Green New Deal proposal is the first to propose solutions that match the scale of the problem.

The Green New Deal’s most important move is to link environmental protection and economic fairness. It is fundamentally an industrial policy that will create jobs while steering the US toward a carbon-neutral energy system by building out renewable energy, substituting away from carbon-intensive technologies, and retrofitting for energy efficiency.

However, there’s something crucial to the success of the GND that we’re not talking enough about: rare earth elements.

What are rare earth elements?

These 17 metals with unusual electrical and magnetic properties are vital to modern life. For example, yttrium makes an iPhone’s screen brighter, while neodymium makes the speaker louder and vibration more noticeable. Other rare earth elements are essential to lasers, specialized glass, and high-tech weapons systems, and medical patients take gadolinium to make their bodies’ bloodflow visible to MRI machines.

Rare earths are also going to play an important role in combatting climate change. The main motors in electric vehicles, such as those in Teslas, use more than three kilograms (6.6 lbs) of neodymium, alloyed with iron and boron to make powerful magnets. Rare earth elements like yttrium are used to control reactions in nuclear reactors, and neodymium, dysprosium, and praseodymium are also important components in some kinds of wind turbines (but not all kinds).

Any proposal that presents a vision for a more environmentally viable future therefore has to consider rare earths. There are two main problems that any such policy will have to address.

These 17 metals with unusual electrical and magnetic properties are vital to modern life.

First, mining and refining the elements is highly toxic. Rare earths are (confusingly) not rare geologically, but the ores often contain radioactive elements like uranium and thorium. Separating the elements into pure metals useful for manufacturing is also difficult. (The quantum properties that make the rare earth elements so useful for electrical and magnetic applications are also what make them hard to disentangle from each other.) The byproducts of the extraction process include dangerous gases and radioactive wastewater, which is usually stored in tailings ponds.

This means that the mainstream methods for rare earth extraction and production harm people’s health, such as giving them an increased risk of developing lung, pancreatic, and other cancers. It also causes environmental damage due to the acid and radioactive waste byproducts created from the mining process. Any environmental policy would need to address these factors.

The second problem is that the vast majority of all rare earth production and processing happens in China. The Chinese government gained dominance on rare earth production through a series of policy and investment choices dating back to the 1980s. Its policies that promoted the mining and production of rare earths led to considerable harm to the health of its people, as well as environmental damage. In recent years the Chinese government has both sought to reduce pollution and to extract greater value from its rare earths by keeping more for use in domestic production. In short, it’s not wise for the US to count on China to supply these crucial materials forever.

How US policy can ensure GND success

This is why the Green New Deal needs to actively address the rare earths. The GND’s rare earth policies must have three goals:

  1. Diversifying the sources of rare earth production—diversifying supply, even at slightly higher costs, will help the industry achieve more responsible production practices;
  2. Stabilizing supply and prices—it’s less the absolute cost of commodities that worries manufacturers, and more the radical price swings and fragility of supply lines;
  3. And ensuring that rare earth production does not sacrifice vulnerable people and places—these goals need to be achieved fairly, and not at the expense of people who live near the sites of production.

A first step for this policy is to ensure that government-sponsored research gets translated into industrial practice. For example, researchers at the Critical Materials Institute (CMI) Ames Laboratory, funded by the Department of Energy, have discovered an acid-free technique for dissolving and recovering rare earths using shredded hard drives. In this process, the magnets are dissolved in water-based solutions to recover more than 99% purity of the rare earths. Industrializing this process would allow domestic producers to recover rare earth elements from e-waste, or tapping an “urban mine.”

Another example comes from the West Virginia Water Research Institute, which has been studying ways to extract REEs at acid-mine-drainage treatment sites. The water draining from mines is currently an expensive liability, but extracting valuable resources from it could make it more likely to be treated, as well as an asset to the clean-energy economy. Over the longer term, government can support research and development work on using rare earth elements more efficiently, as automakers like Toyota and Honda are already doing, as well as encouraging research into substitute materials that are less toxic to produce.

As a next step, the US government needs to support production that protects workers and the environment as much as possible. It has been a leader in the past: The Mountain Pass Mine in the Mojave Desert was the world’s major source of rare earth elements from 1960 to 2000. It was closed in 2002, in part because of repeated violations of California pollution law, and in part because of low global prices caused by Chinese competitors that don’t pay for health and environmental protections. Policy makers should also explore offering subsidies to private operators for environmental protections, or launching a federally owned corporation specific to rare earth production.

Supporters of the Green New Deal understand that industrial policy and environmental policy are inextricably linked. They also recognize that if we don’t include environmental justice, then we’ll stabilize the climate at the expense of vulnerable people. Now we need to take that insight one step further down the chain, and figure out how to sustainably produce the materials necessary to keep our climate stable—and modern society running.