back to article Greenland's elections just bolstered China's tech world domination plan

The future of a China-backed rare-earth mining operation in southern Greenland has become uncertain following an election in which one of the winning party's key policies was opposition to an Australian mining company. That's a lot to digest, so let's unpack it all. Greenland Minerals is an Australian mining company that …

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  1. Ken 16 Silver badge
    Childcatcher

    Overselling the title a bit

    The article didn't call out a plan for world domination and the same heading could (would?) have been used if the election went the other way and the mining company with Chinese backing were allowed dig for uranium. Either way, I don't think Greenland has a dog in the fight. If you have evidence that the Chinese government were interfering in the election or funding the Inuit Ataqatigiit party, THAT would be a story.

  2. Muscleguy

    Note further that Australia has rare earths. It restarted a closed rare earth mine which is why there’s an Aussie rare earth mining Co. Also Australia and China are currently in a major spat. Which NZ is pointedly staying out of. So a major Chinese ownership of that Co could well be uncomfortable at the moment.

    PM Morrison in Australia is using standing up to China to boost his flagging poll results because his party’s record on women’s rights and respect is frankly awful.. His voters like that sort of macho thing.

    1. Chris G

      The main Aussie miner for rare earths is Luna's, they have been having a spat with Malaysia over a processing plant they have there because the locals are not happy with the amounts of low level radioactive waste it produces and allegations of pollution.

      There was talk about having to process in Oz where the stuff is mined so I expect the Greenlanders are aware of that.

      Considering REs are the new oil on some respects, I wonder what the US will do to protect its valuable and handy neighbour?

      1. Potemkine! Silver badge

        So, Australia would extract from its soil rare earths then exports it to Malaysia to process it? Is the reason that the process is polluting or because Malaysia can provide not so far from slave labor?

        1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

          From memory, the processing is hugely capital intensive,so you dig up the dirt where it exists and transport it to a pre-existing processor to convert into metals. It's why when the Yorkshire iron-ore fields went empty they imported ore from overseas to the existing steelworks instead of building new steelworks overseas next to the ores.

          The cost of building a processing facility near to where you dig up the rock is compared to how much you can sell the output for is only financially viable there is so little processing capacity that the prices have rocketed. I'm sure our resident esoteric metals expert could explain it better than me.

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    The consequence of not mining something today is that it's still there to be mined tomorrow.

    1. storner

      Indeed. And greenlanders - including the winning IA party - really would like to separate from Denmark and gain independence. That costs a lot, so at some point they'll have to decide between independence and mining, or remaining part of the Kingdom of Denmark and keeping the RME's buried beneath Kvanefjell.

      But keeping the chinese out of the loop would probably be a good idea.

      1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

        And being beholden to a foreign mining company in which a Chinese mining company has a considerable interest doesn't sound like much like independence: just ask the people of East Timor.

        As long as Greenland is nominally a part of Denmark, it's likely to have fewer Chinese commercial posts, etc.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        "But keeping the chinese out of the loop would probably be a good idea."

        I don't doubt they'd want to keep the US out as well.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          "I don't doubt they'd want to keep the US out as well."

          The US has offered $millions in grants and aid because they very much want to keep their airbase at Thule and don't want a Chinese presence anywhere near them.

      3. Lars Silver badge
        Coat

        "the winning IA party - really would like to separate from Denmark".

        There is no majority for full independence today but it might happen some day.

  4. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Meh

    Does China really have most of the world's supply? Or is it just that they have no environmental laws so they can undercut everyone else? I seem to recall that when they tried to put a squeeze on everyone else, all that happened was that mines everywhere else re-opened because they were now profitable.

    I am reminded of Tim Worstall's observation a few years back: the known reserves of any mineable commodity are always some scarily small number of years because once you have a decade or two under your belt you stop looking, for a few years.

    1. Joe W Silver badge

      Re: Meh

      Yes, I remembered those articles as well. So a perceived scarcity of RE is not a big problem. Sure, the prices will go up when you have to follow rules about environmental impact, or even just basic H&S. But that only means the stuff was way too cheap and too many people were getting killed as a by product.

    2. rg287 Silver badge

      Re: Meh

      Does China really have most of the world's supply?

      Yes, in as much as they have most of the world's mining and processing infrastructure, and have done the legwork to prove reserves. (see I Ain't Spartacus regarding the distinction of Reserves vs. Resources). Lots of countries have RE resources. They just haven't bothered to study them in detail yet.

      REs aren't that rare and are fairly equitably distributed. But China made the investment in actually developing their reserves and bringing the stuff to market in some volume, and the price/kg hasn't been worth anyone else competing with them (we'll leave aside the political/environmental/labour-cost reasons underlying that).

      Given the growing strategic importance of these metals, more countries are now looking at diversifying their supply chain on national security, rather than economic grounds - in much the same way as Intel and others are looking at developing a bit more semiconductor manufacturing in parts of the world that aren't Taiwan (or at least don't sit on the Pacific Ring of Fire!).

    3. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Meh

      It's a bit of both: there are sites in Inner Mongolia that are both large and relatively rich in certain minerals and the local population is apparently ecstatic over the mines and processing plants…

    4. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Re: Meh

      As Tim Worstall, late of this parish, has recently remarked elsewhere, the problem is not the supply of rare earth metals, which are actually pretty common, but the processing of the ore to get usable stuff out of it. Processing involves unpleasant chemicals and the waste is almost always radioactive so building a plant anywhere that has strict environmental protection regulations is expensive. Because of China's recent attempt to hog the supply the US reopened a couple of their mines, but the ore was still sent to China for processing. The spat between Trump and China and resultant tariffs ended up making that uneconomic.

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: Meh

        As Tim Worstall, late of this parish, has recently remarked elsewhere, the problem is not the supply of rare earth metals, which are actually pretty common, but the processing of the ore to get usable stuff out of it

        Yup, he's written some interesting articles on this. One being that there can be a lot of 'rare' earths in spoil heaps from old mining. Like this one-

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Pass_mine

        Originally started to extract europium for making color TVs, but the bastnasite also contained cerium, neodymium, lanthanum and maybe other elements that have varied in value over time. I think he also mentioned spoil from tin mining can be rich in rare earths. And as you say, the problem isn't with supply, but with regulatory costs and dealing with environmental objections.. Especially when it comes with irrational fears of radiation. Which I guess is a present challenge given the price of uranium's been increasing recently, and spoil heaps or reserves in the US contain that. Plus of course good'ol thorium for if/when LFTRs get the go ahead.

  5. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

    Far be it from me to complain but?

    Erm, there's a few problems with this article. Firstly being that rare earths aren't rare.

    As ChrisG said, up-thread, it's the processing that's the problem. There are rare earths in many mineral deposits, but the question is whether they're in a concentration to make it worthwhile getting them out. This being partly because demand is relatively low (annual use in the hundreds of tonnes for many rare earths) and also because it's often a bit messy. So a lot got done in China, because they were willing to put up with lower environmental standards, and it costs more to do it without polluting.

    China has the largest reserves of rare earths, because "reserves" in the resource extraction industry has a very specific meaning. A reserve is a proven mineral deposit that has been surveyed not just to see that it's there in sufficient quantity and concentration, but also at an affordable price taking into account wages, government permits and transport costs. So basically you've done all the expensive survey work, and are on the way to getting all the government and environmental paperwork done - as well as all the testing of samples. This is not something any company is going to pay to do, unless there's a likelyhood of actually doing any mining - hence China having most of the reserves. A "resource" is where you've proved the stuff exists and can be extracted in theory, but not done anything further yet. This is why we only have a few years left of vital mineral resources - and the occasional panic news article about it. Who on eath is going to pay to do all that work for something they're not going to mine for another 50 years?

    Finally:

    China has the world's largest reserves of rare earths, a happy strategic accident that it has never used to make life hard for other nations.

    I can't work out if this is sarcasm or not? The next sentence tends to imply that it's not, but people are worried. But it should be sarcastic, and that's El Reg's style after all. I'm presuming nobody's forgetten that China threatened to embargo foreign sales of rare earths last decade, unless the manufacturing they were used for was done in China? Which caused the price to spike and a couple of companies to start ramping up prodcution - only for the price to collapse and the whole idea to be quietly forgotten about.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      I definitely took that as sarcasm. I agree that it was slightly unexpected given the tone of the rest of the article, but it is standard Vulture writing and a reminder of the basic style : biting.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Boffin

        Looks like it's time to resurrect an old Reg standard:

        https://www.theregister.com/2001/02/01/the_color_of_irony/

  6. karlkarl Silver badge

    Yes, you can mine it but please don't waste the resources on landfill "smart" phones this time OK kids?

  7. Fazal Majid

    Nothing rare about rare earths

    It's just the process of extracting them is incredibly polluting, which is why US rare earth plants were closed, they were happy to ship the pollution to China. Australians for one are not particularly loth to rape the environment for a quick buck, and the Register's own Tim Worstall explained why China's rare earth monopoly is not the trump card it thinks that is:

    https://www.theregister.com/2010/01/15/rare_earth_metals/

    1. RegGuy1 Silver badge

      Re: Nothing rare about rare earths

      Apart from holes in the ground, does the Australian economy produce anything else?

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Nothing rare about rare earths

        Wine. Mmm.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Nothing rare about rare earths

          And the aquaduct,

      2. Potemkine! Silver badge

        Re: Nothing rare about rare earths

        Kangaroo Jam?

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
          Happy

          Re: Nothing rare about rare earths

          Kangaroo Jam? What genre of music do they play?

          I know that Australia has provided the world with many "musical" exports, I’ve still not forgiven them for Kylie and Jason.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            "I've still not forgiven them for Kylie and Jason"

            I'll take them (especially Kylie, but even Jason) over the composer of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" any day. That's their really offensive export. Oh, and Murdoch.

          2. Potemkine! Silver badge

            Re: Nothing rare about rare earths

            They exported AC/DC also. For this a lot can be forgiven.

      3. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

        Re: Nothing rare about rare earths

        CO2

  8. Xalran

    All he mines in Greenland so far...

    All the mines in Greenland so far... Shipped the ore away without doing anything on it.

    Mesters Vig ( Zinc/Lead ) only infrastructure was an airstrip and a place to dock ships.

    Ivigtut... well they transferred the ore from the open pit mine to the ships by just rotating the crane.

    Even the Gold mine ( I forgot it's name ) sent the ore away for treatment.

    And here they want to build a whole treatment and concentration plant, along with supporting plants to produce the acids needed in the treatment/concentration.

    No surprise the Inuits don't agree with that.

    There's several reasons :

    - Inuits are protecive of their environment.

    - There's not enough people living there to actually provide workers to the mine ( Greenland whole population : 50000 or so )

    they don't want to be invaded by Chinese people that will fill the jobs that can't be filled locally.

    - a mine in Greenland means that it can only produce during 4 to 6 months in a year... so the ore concentration has to be very high to make it profitable.

    ( and yes that geological complex has high percentages of all the cited ores... )

    - that geological complex is also one of the oldest one in the world ( between 1Ga and 2.5Ga... there's older not far in Greenland but it's part of the oldest rocks in the planet )

    For the area in question more details can be found in this PDF : https://eng.geus.dk/media/13359/go_fs23.pdf

    ( yes it comes from the Danish Geological Survey... But Greenland is still an autonomous province of Denmark for the time being. )

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "China produced about 81,000 tons of rare-earth metals in 2001; the number jumped to about 120,000 by 2006. According to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, 9,600 to 12,000 cubic metres (340,000 to 420,000 cubic feet) of waste gas—containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid—are released with every ton of rare metals that are mined. Approximately 75 m3 (2,600 cu ft) of acidic wastewater, plus about a ton of radioactive waste residue are also produced"

    Oh yay, electric everything is so sustainable and environmentally friendly!

    On the other hand, it will seriously enrich a select few people, companies, and countries along the way.

  10. Alan Brown Silver badge

    The issue isn't the rare earths

    The real issue is the thorium

    and that SHOULDN'T be an issue - but an opportunity, as Tim Worstal kept pointing out.

    The "highly polluting extraction methods" really aren't. They just produce lots of thorium as an inevitable byproduct. Rare earth mines are really thorium mines which should be producing rare earths as a side gig (about 5000 tonnes per mine per year)

    How do you deal with acidic wastewater? Evaporate and recover/reuse the materials. It's being done already

  11. Nick Sheridan

    Chinese blocking access?

    I thought China had blocked RE access to Japan?

  12. RLWatkins

    "a happy strategic accident that it has never used to make life hard for other nations"

    Really?

    Years ago they put lanthanide mining out of business in two or three other countries by selling theirs at or below cost, "cost" in China being less than elsewhere because they enforce no environmental or labor protection laws.

    And while this may have changed in the interim, they then put a policy in place that they would not export them as raw materials, but would sell to any and all as much finished product as anyone wanted to buy.

    I'd hoped the US would counter with its own, similar industrial policy, as the stuff is a goldmine. But our leadership happily caved.

    Crikey. It's been in the news over the years. It isn't much of a secret.

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