The NY Times has a new article, “Earth-Friendly Elements, Mined Destructively,” on environmental consequences of using  rare earth elements in things like wind turbines and hybrid cars. These elements are very dense, and are very useful for helping reduce energy consumption.

China has a virtual monopoly on some of the heavy rare earths, and as we know, China’s record on pollution control is not all that good. Further, China has been reducing its output of some rare earths.

PBS NewsHour ran a nice piece on this issue recently.  From the transcript:

LINDSEY HILSUM: Rare earth processing in China is a messy, dangerous, polluting business. It uses toxic chemicals, acids, sulfates, ammonia. The workers have little or no protection.

But, without rare earth, Copenhagen means nothing. You buy a Prius hybrid car and think you’re saving the planet. But each motor contains a kilo of neodymium and each battery more than 10 kilos of lanthanum, rare earth elements from China.

MARK SMITH, CEO, Molycorp Minerals: If the purpose is to lower our dependence on foreign oil, and all We’re doing is asking that we put hybrid cars on the road that need Chinese rare earth materials, aren’t we changing, you know, inter-trading one dependence for another?

MARK SMITH: I think that, if we don’t get a couple of projects up and running very, very quickly, there’s going to be very severe shortage of rare earths in the world, and all of these clean-energy technologies that we’re legislating and trying to implement through policy changes are not going to be possible.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Champions of a low-carbon future have yet to wake up to the environmental price Chinese workers and villagers are paying. At Copenhagen, politicians talk of cutting carbon emissions, but they can’t meet any targets without rare earth, and that means a sustainable supply, and not all from China.