Economics News

New Rare Earth Deposits in Mozambique – And Elsewhere

Over the past several years, China’s near monopolization of the supply of rare earth elements has received much attention in the global media. Less widely reported is the quest to locate and develop alternative supplies. Currently, an Australian firm is building a rare earth refinery in Malaysia to process radioactive ore from Western Australia. In late January 2012, Malaysia granted a license for the project to proceed, despite protests from local environmentalists. Estonia is now extracting rare earth oxides in sizable quantities from mine tailings; according to a January 27 press release, “The US-incorporated producer of rare earth metals Molycorp Silmet, based in northeastern Estonia, may soon become the world’s largest producer of niobium, a rare earth metal used in electronics, aviation and energy production.” According to the Wikipedia, France is currently setting up two factories to recycle rare earth elements from electronic waste.

Last summer, another report indicated that rare earth minerals are abundant in “deep sea mud” in parts of the Pacific. The report further claimed that these deposits “are also much higher in heavy rare earth elements — the kind that are more important in technology products — than those in China.”

More recently, the Australian firm Kimberley Rare Earths announced what could be a massive new ore discovery in western Mozambique. The complexity of rare earth deposits is evident in the news release: “A sample [was] found to comprise major xenotime and minor monazite and zircon.
In addition to yttrium, the xenotime shows appreciable dysprosium and erbium.”

Meanwhile, MarketWatch reported in mid-February that, “Over the last month Rare Earth stocks have outperformed the broader market by a large margin as demand for the 17 elements continues to skyrocket.” The same article mentions new rare earth mining projects in Alaska, British Columbia, and Wyoming.

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The Pilbara to Populate?

Australia Map, Highlighting the Pilbara

Australia Map, Highlighting the PilbaraThe Pilbara is a vast, sparsely settled region in northwestern Australia noted for its gargantuan reserves of iron-ore and other minerals. Covering 193,823 sq mi (502,000 km2), the Pilbara is substantially larger than California, yet it has fewer than 50,000 permanent inhabitants. The region’s workforce, however, is much larger than its population would indicate, as most of the employees in the booming mining sector are classified as transient. They typically reside in the Perth area, the metropolitan core of Western Australia, and fly up to the mining country for working stints of a week or two.

The government of Western Australia, however, has recently decided that the “fly in; fly out” model of Pilbara employment is inefficient, and that more workers should reside permanently in the region. In mid-February, as noted by Perth Now, “Planning Minister John Day released the Pilbara Planning and Infrastructure Framework…, which will support the State Government’s lofty ambitions to attract 140,000 permanent residents to the region in just over two decades…”

The climate of the Pilbara is rigorous. This semi-arid region is brutally hot for half of the year; the town of Marble Bar holds the world’s records for the most consecutive days—160—in which the high temperature exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius). Much of the precipitation that does fall comes in the form of drenching tropical cyclones, which strike on average in seven out of ten years.

Complaints about settling in the Pilbara, however, seem to focus more on urban amenities than climate. As commentator John Smith noted in regard to the article cited above:

I have been flying in and out for 2 years and I would agree that it is not a particularly nice place to live. Scenery is nothing compared to the East Coast or many other places, and infrastructure is only to support the miners. No movie theatres, no decent restaurant, can’t get a decent coffee even if paying $5 minimum. And housing costs are absolutely ridiculous. Someone needs to fix that if anything is to change, it will take the government to force them to release a million acres of land from the 400 million available. Give it away for free. Otherwise Australia will price itself out of the market for minerals—it is already starting to happen.

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The Arctic Council to Expand?

Modified Wikipedia Arctic Council Map

Modified Wikipedia Arctic Council Map2point6billion, a China-India-ASEAN investment newsletter, reports that China, India, and Brazil are trying to gain observer status on the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum focused on Arctic issues, including environmental protection, economic development, and indigenous rights. The Wikipedia claims that China, along with Japan, South Korea, and Italy, already enjoys “ad-hoc observer” status on the council. According to 2point6billion, Canada and Russia are wary of non-Arctic countries gaining access to the Council, while Finland, Norway, and Denmark support expansion.  The Wikipedia reports, however, that  Norway has opposed permanent observer status for China. The newsletter article goes on to state that “Chinese authorities [have] started to contemplate the potential benefits of an ice-free Arctic,” and that the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration has organized twenty-seven Antarctic expeditions since 1984, with the next one scheduled for this coming July.

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Saskatchewan’s Oil-Driven Population Boom

Canadian news sources have been proudly announcing the fact that the province of Saskatchewan posted a population growth rate of 6.7 percent over the past five years, after having declined by a 1.1 percent rate between 2001 and 2006. Reports emphasize the international origin of many of Saskatchewan’s new residents, with China, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines figuring prominently. The province, boosters claim, “is becoming increasingly diverse, dynamic and cosmopolitan.” Many newcomers do, however, report difficulties adjusting to the winter climate.

Saskatchewan’s recent growth represents a major departure from historical patterns. As can be seen in the paired graphs, the province has experienced relative demographic stability for decades, much in contrast to neighboring, oil-rich Alberta. But Saskatchewan is now riding the energy boom as well. Although Alberta’s famous (or infamous) oil sands do not extend into the province, the Bakken Formation, usually associated with North Dakota, does. Until recently, the massive oil deposits in the Bakken were not economically recoverable. Now they are, thanks the environmentally problematic fracking techniques more commonly associated with natural gas.

  It will be interesting to see what the oil boom does to the political culture of Saskatchewan. The province has a long heritage of social democracy, rooted in agrarian populism, although its voting patterns have been trending in a more conservative direction in recent year. But Saskatchewan still has a very different political culture from that of neighboring Alberta, as can be seen on the map. Alberta is by far the most conservative Canadian province, as reflected in its nickname, “the Texas of Canada.” An increasingly energy-based economy in Saskatchewan may generate more conservative attitudes there as well, although such tendencies may be counteracted by the province’s increasing cosmopolitanism.

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Cannabis Growing and Eradication in Buryatia

Map of Republic of Buryatia, Russia

Map of Republic of Buryatia, Russia
Republic of Buryatia, Russia

A recent GeoCurrents post noted California’s Mendocino County and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley as major centers of cannabis production. They are hardly alone in that position, however. Other areas of concentrated marijuana production include parts of northern Afghanistan and highland Morocco. Another far less likely zone has just come to my attention: the Russian republic of Buryatia, a Mongolian-speaking area in southern Siberia. Russian officials are now complaining that local cannabis eradication programs are behind schedule. A recent article reports that, “3.3 metric tons of drugs were confiscated in Buryatia last year of which cannabis made up to 95 percent. Cannabis covered an area of 3,400 hectares in the republic last year, 150 hectares more than in 2010.”  Wild cannabis supposedly grows freely in the Lake Baikal area, although it is not clear whether these wild strains are potent enough to sell.

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ALBAs Support for Syria

Iran’s PressTV is trumpeting the fact that the Venezuelan-led, anti-US block known as ALBA has thrown its support behind the Syrian government condemning what it calls foreign efforts to destabilize the country. According to the group’s official statement, “The heads of state and government of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) reiterate their condemnation of the systematic policy of interference and destabilization in the brother Arab Republic of Syria which (the policy) intends to impose by force on the Syrian people a change in rulers.”

Other than Syria itself, Iran’s closest diplomatic ties are now located in Latin America. If the al-Assad regime were to fall, Iran would be largely diplomatically isolated in its own region of the world, although Russian support would like remain.


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