Rare Earth Metals Get the Presidential Treatment

The news cycle has been changing at a rapid clip these past few months, so you’re excused if you missed an important development involving President Donald Trump last week. And no, I’m not talking about that development.

Last Wednesday, the president signed an executive order addressing the threat posed by the United States’ overreliance on “critical minerals” from “foreign adversaries.”

To be more specific, “critical minerals” here means “rare earth metals,” and “foreign adversaries” means “China.”

I’ve written about rare earths before. Although not as rare as gold, the group of 17 metals are used in the manufacture of advanced technologies, including electric vehicles, wind turbines and missile guidance systems. Your iPhone contains a number of them. Each F-35 fighter jet has about half a ton of these strategic elements.

The problem is that the U.S. no longer produces barite (used in fracking), gallium (semiconductors, 5G telecommunications), graphite (smartphone batteries) and a number of other materials. “For 31 of the 35 critical minerals, the United States imports more than half of its annual consumption,” according to the press release.

Today, China controls some 80 percent to 95 percent of the world market, depending on the mineral. Obviously this is a concern, especially given that the country’s exports of rare earths have fallen more than 25 percent year-over-year from January to August due to the pandemic.

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President Trump has rightfully declared this a national emergency and asks that the U.S develop a “commercially viable” mineral supply chain that does not depend on imports from China or elsewhere.

The question is: How do we get there?

Meet MP Materials, Set to Go Public Later this Year

The answer may lie with MP Materials, an as-yet privately funded mining company headquartered in Las Vegas. Founded in 2004, MP Materials bought the storied Mountain Pass rare earth project in 2017 for $20.5 million when its former operator, Molycorp, went bankrupt.

In case the name is new to you, Mountain Pass—located in San Bernardino County, California—is the only rare earth mining and processing plant in the U.S. Up until the 1980s, it was also the world’s leading supplier of obscure yet important metals ranging from cerium to lanthanum to europium.