Why The Industrial Minerals Sector Is Here To Stay [Molycorp Inc, Lynas Corporation Limited, Rare Element Resources Ltd]

rare earth metalThere are two ways to visualize the critical metals and industrial minerals sector. Some see a hostile climate, where junior mining companies compete for scarce financing dollars. But there’s a sunnier side to this story: more than ever, companies, government and academiaare forming partnerships to solve a global problem—the ongoing need for scarce critical materials. In this Mining Report interview, Luisa Moreno, industrial minerals analyst with Euro Pacific Capital, discusses the challenges and the prospects for players in a sector she insists is here to stay

The Mining Report: Let’s start with some macro events in the rare earth elements (REE) space. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel, the world’s largest REE supplier, bought nine regional REE mining companies in a move to consolidate China’s REE industry. The article called that consolidation a sign of market weakness. Do you agree?

Luisa Moreno: I don’t necessarily agree. China set a domestic REE production quota of about 90,000 tons in 2011, according to United States Geological Survey (USGS) Chinese production was about 120,000-130,000 tons per year, between 2006 and 2010. The production ceiling represents more than a 25% decrease in production from the world’s largest producer of REEs.

The move to consolidation in China has two aspects: First, China expects to control domestic output and prices through consolidation. Second, China wants to decrease the negative environmental impact of mining and processing. There are many artisanal miners in China across the different metals and minerals and in particular REEs. Many are working with toxic reagents and chemicals that when poorly handled and disposed off, have a very negative impact on the environment. I think consolidation is positive and bullish in the long-term for the mining space. When there is less production in China, it opens up opportunities for producers elsewhere.

TMR: A recent Euro Pacific Capital research report suggests REE demand will grow 6-10% annually through 2020. Is that enough growth to bring investment capital back into the sector?

LM: It should be. A 6–10% growth profile means that to meet demand, production should reach 175,000 tons to north of 200,000 tons by 2020. If China maintains its output at 90,000 tons, it will give new players the opportunity to come in and fill the gap.

I think that opportunity for new producers is tremendously bullish for the sector. It should attract investment capital once the capital markets understand and believe in this potential.

We may see signs of market improvement when prices stabilize or when prices of the less common REEs, like some of the heavy rare earth elements (HREEs) start increasing, as we believe they might. Rise in demand and prices over the next couple of months should give the capital markets confidence that this sector is here to stay.

TMR: Along those lines, a December 2013 Pentagon report suggested that U.S. reliance on Chinese rare earths is waning. That is a big change from a few years ago. What changed?

LM: Yes, the world’s reliance on Chinese REEs may be waning with the increase in production from a number of countries, including Molycorp Inc. (MCP:NYSE) in the U.S. and Lynas Corp. (LYC:ASX) in Australia, but China is still the largest producer (80–85%) and consumer, and still controls most of the supply (>95%) of HREEs. The Pentagon is likely dependent on a number of HREEs. It has been suggested that the Pentagon may be uncomfortable letting the rest of the world know that there are elements that are critical, that a shortage of these elements could affect them.

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