A US rare earths miner is staging a comeback to take on China

A wheel loader operator fills a truck with ore at the MP Materials rare earth mine in Mountain Pass, California, U.S. January 30, 2020. Picture…
A wheel loader operator fills a truck with ore at the MP Materials rare earth mine in Mountain Pass, California, U.S. January 30, 2020. Picture…
Image: Reuters/Steve Marcus
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The Mountain Pass rare earths mine in California’s Mojave desert has had its ups and downs through the years.

Once the world’s largest producer of rare earths—a group of 17 minerals crucial in the manufacturing of many high-tech products—it was forced to shut in 2002 in part because it was squeezed out by China’s low prices. In 2015, its owner went bankrupt. A new owner acquired the mine, and slowly restarted operations. Now that company, MP Materials, is about to go public on the New York Stock Exchange. Its stated mission: restore the full rare earth supply chain to the US and eliminate dependence on China, which currently dominates the global rare earth industry.

Under the arrangement, MP Materials is expected to merge this week with a private-equity backed “blank check” company—known more technically as a special purpose acquisition company—after which it will trade under the ticker “MP” in a $1.5 billion deal highlighting investors’ growing interest in the US rare earths industry. MP Materials will net about $500 million in cash to fund upgrades to the Mountain Pass facility, where it’s currently mining elements for ultimate use in magnets critical to the manufacturing of electric vehicles.

While Beijing drove the country’s rare earths dominance with government subsidies and production and export quotas, companies in the US and elsewhere now hope that markets, together with strategic government rules, can help counter China’s sway in the rare earths sector. The SPAC that’s helping take MP Materials public, for example, is controlled by Japan’s SoftBank group.

“Strategic, small investments aimed across many parts of the supply chain…is a very urgent requirement in order for the US government” to close gaps in industrial capacity, said Dan McGroarty, an adviser to USA Rare Earth, a company that’s developing a rare earths mine in Texas. He pointed to Japan and Australia (paywall) as examples of governments that have made strategic investments that catalyzed private investment in the industry.

“Commercial national security”

In 2010, China sent shockwaves through the global economy when it slashed rare earth exports worldwide and entirely cut Japan off in an effort to pressure Tokyo to release a detained Chinese fishing trawler captain. Rare earths prices shot up, then crashed when the bubble popped. Though China was forced to scrap the export restrictions in 2014 after it lost an appeal at the World Trade Organization, the episode heightened countries’ wariness of being overly dependent on China’s supplies of rare earths.

Recent veiled threats in Chinese state media that Beijing could cut off rare earth supplies to major US defense contractors have brought those fears to the fore again. And as Chinese domestic demand for rare earths has increased so much that it became a net importer in 2018 for the first time in over three decades, there are concerns that Beijing could again turn off the nozzle.

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“China is going to tighten regulations around exports, there’s no question about that,” said Pini Althaus, CEO of USA Rare Earth. “So the EU, US, Japan, etcetera, are going to have a far more difficult time of acquiring what they need.” And because China now needs more rare earths than it can produce, he said, withholding exports for internal use will not be regarded by the WTO as a breach of international trade laws.

The other issue, as MP Materials CEO Jim Litinsky put it in a recent interview, is “a demand-driven challenge.” As global industries electrify, demand for the rare earths will only continue to grow, making it a key strategic priority for countries to secure a reliable supply of the critical minerals.

Though military use makes up “low single-digit percentages” of total US demand for rare earths, it’s a matter of “commercial national security” for the US to be able to meet its own demand for rare earths, he said.

Easier said than done

The task of building a rare earth supply chain that’s more independent from China is a complex one.

Just look at MP Materials. It is almost one-tenth owned by a Chinese company, Shenghe Resources. That was enough to prompt concerns from US government scientists over Pentagon funding for MP Materials, though funding has now resumed following a review. Meanwhile, MP Materials currently has to send much of its rare earth concentrates to China for processing because it doesn’t have the capacity to do so itself.  The company hopes to process and refine its own rare earths by 2022, so as to keep the entire supply chain on US soil.

Rare earths companies also depend on China for revenue. Chinese customers currently account for all of MP Materials’ annual revenue of around $100 million. Arafura, an Australian rare earths producer, similarly illustrates this tension when it notes in the same section of its annual report (pdf) that it’s both actively targeting customers “not aligned with China’s vertically integrated ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy,” while at the same time seeking to negotiate potential deals with firms in China. In fact, Arafura has signed deals with two Chinese companies that together will buy 40% of its annual production of neodymium-praseodymium (NdPr) oxide, a critical material for industrial magnets.

China, meanwhile, is well aware of the risks it faces as it continues to expend its rare earth resources at a rapid clip. A recent article in a journal published by the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences noted that as countries like the US and Japan ramp up rare earths production, they may soon “build a rare earth industry chain completely independent of China” and crimp China’s global pricing power in rare earths. Coupled with their existing strength in high-end uses of rare earths, the authors warned that Japan and the US could counteract China’s dominant position in the industry.

“Being completely independent of the Chinese supply chain will take many, many years,” said Althaus. “The important thing to understand is no one company, no one business, is going to put China out of business. What we need to do is provide alternatives so we’re not solely dependent on China.”