China growing uneasy over Greenland's rare earth ambitions

Chinese President Hu Jintao | Creative Commons caricature from DonkeyHotey

China has long enjoyed its supremacy in the rare earths field but lately this position has been challenged by an often over-looked, massive island nation: Greenland.

The Asian giant produces 95% of the world's Rare Earth Elements (REE) supply – a fact that has caused much unease among US law makers –  and has never had to face any real contenders, until now. Late last year the industry was buzzing with rumours that Greenland could hold enough of these metals to satisfy one-quarter of global demand over the next 50 years.

A recent visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Denmark – Greenland's official hegemon – caused some analysts to speculate that the People's Republic may be getting a little antsy over the country's valuable deposits, Ice News reports.

According to European Commission data, Greenland has "especially strong potential in six of the fourteen elements on the EU critical raw materials list."

In fact, one company is well on its way to becoming a real threat: Greenland's Tanbreez Mining – of Australian parentage – has been eyeing the island's southern region since 2010. Tanbreez controls the largest non-Chinese REE deposit in the world and is submitting a final exploration license application next week, a Tanbreez spokesperson said.

"We expect to start our construction as soon as all permissions are in place, which could be as early as 2014." the spokesperson said. "Then we expect initial 10 year mine life although it has potential to greatly exceed this."

But the People's Republic may find some solace in the fact that Greenland is overwhelmingly concerned about the environmental and safety implications of mining rare earths, which may cause some roadblocks. However, Tanbreez asserts that these concerns do not apply to the the areas it plans on mining.

Meanwhile, China's domestic REE industry is hitting a rough patch. According to Ice News, "excessive mining" has made extraction difficult for the country's miners. Illegal mining has also plagued the sector.

Source: Great Western Minerals Group

Aside from Greenland, China's rare earths industry has other challengers to consider. According to Greenland's Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, Brazil has 37% of the world's rare earth potential – 12% more than China – and Vietnam 10%.

The US is also ramping up exploration and recently tasked the US Geological Survey with uncovering domestic supplies in old mine site tailings. 

Chinese officials and REE producers addressed these concerns at the country's Baotou Rare Earth Industry Forum on Thursady.

"The output of each rare earth mine in the United States, Australia and Russia is often less than 25,000 tonnes," Zhang Zhong, president of China's top rare earth producer told Xinhuanet. "Although Vietnam, India, Canada and South Africa have launched some rare earth projects, they need plenty of time to put them into operation and realize the capacity."