Obama: U.S. Firms ‘Need Access’ to China’s Coveted Rare Earth Minerals

BY Larisa Epatko  March 13, 2012 at 1:30 PM EDT

Most of the prized minerals needed to make high-tech products such as hybrid car batteries and cell phones come from China. But limits China is placing on those materials are making it harder for U.S. manufacturers to compete, said President Obama when he announced a new trade case against China on Tuesday.

China, which supplies 95 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals, has been limiting its exports of the desired materials over the years due to its own internal increasing needs for computers, electronics and car parts.

The United States, along with the European Union and Japan, are filing coordinated complaints with the World Trade Organization to formally request a dispute settlement consultation.

“American manufacturers need to have access to rare earth materials — which China supplies,” President Obama said Tuesday in the White House Rose Garden. “Our administration will bring this case against China today.” (Read his full remarks.)

Rare earth minerals also are used by the military for missile guidance and communications systems.

Jack Lifton, director of Technology Metals Research, told special correspondent Kira Kay in a June 2010 NewsHour report that China’s restrictions already are causing a crunch: “There are a lot of my colleagues saying, ‘Oh, no, it’s in the future, it’s in the future.’ Well, no, it isn’t, because developing mines takes years and years. The crisis is now.”

In 2009, Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News took a look at the environmental damage that rare earth processing sites can pose.

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