U.S. manufacturers dependent on foreign sources for rare earth metals because of its inability to mine deep seabed
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Until a decade ago, the United States was 100 percent self-reliant for rare earth production, with domestic companies producing enough to supply U.S. manufacturers. Over time, however, U.S. production was halted as it became economically and environmentally cost prohibitive.
Companies in various countries – including the United States – are looking at reopening closed mines and developing new deposits, but these efforts could take a number of years to fully come on line.
The deep seabed offers a new opportunity for the United States to gain steady access to these vital rare earth minerals. Polymetallic nodules are located on the deep ocean floor. These nodules typically contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals. However, U.S. companies cannot actively pursue claims in the areas where these nodules are dense unless the U.S. ratifies the Law of the Sea Treaty.
U.S. companies increasingly seek to engage in seabed mining for minerals such as rare earth elements and cobalt that are critical to the broad U.S. economy and used in producing defense assets. The deep seabed contains two potential sources for rare earth elements: polymetallic nodules which typically contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals; and sea-floor hydrothermal vents which pump out rare-earth elements dissolved in their hot fluids.
U.S. next-generation military technology has become so dependent on a steady supply of rare earth metals that it could become a strategic disadvantage in any coming war with China. In addition, these metals have become valuable for advanced electronics and energy efficient "green" technologies.
The development of deep seabed claims is incredibly expensive. Companies in the U.S. are reluctant to invest heavily in deep seabed mining because of the risk that their activities would not withstand a legal challenge since the U.S. is not a party to the Convention. Conversely, foreign companies, because their governments have joined the Convention, have access to the international bodies that grant the legal claims to operate in the deep seabed area. The U.S. cannot represent the interests of its companies in those bodies.