Even though there are no rare earth metals in the first wave of protected conservation areas that Brownlee wants to open for mining, he can’t help but go on about them. Take the first conclusion from the minerals stocktake:
‘A key conclusion from this stocktake is that New Zealand is a mineral rich country with considerable untapped potential. This potential extends beyond minerals that have a long history of development in New Zealand, such as gold, and includes many minerals of great importance to modern economies which few New Zealanders are likely aware exist in New Zealand. Our mineral potential includes so-called ‘rare earth elements’, which are considered globally to be minerals of strategic importance, given very limited players in the global market. They include dysprosium, terbium, erbium and ytterbium, which are critical to technologies such as hybrid and electric cars, wind turbines, computer disk drives, fibreoptic telecommunication cables, low-energy light bulbs and military equipment.’
Why the obsession? Well, check out the last item on his list – military equipment. And note the reference to ‘strategic importance’.
As Brownlee is fond of noting, most of the world’s supply of some of the key rare earths comes from China, which is getting less and less keen on exporting them unprocessed. That’s no big deal for consumer electronics. It just means the manufacture has to take place in China rather than, say, Japan or Korea. We can still get our gadgets. But it is a problem for large consumers of high-tech military equipment. Especially ones engaged in two wars where they’re going through smart bombs and drones like crazy.
Consider too that many US military planners see conflict with China as inevitable.
The last thing the US wants is to be dependent on the world’s other superpower, and potential adversary, for its supply of military hardware. That’s where the “strategic importance” comes from.
I think that Brownlee wants us to be a good ally in the Western Alliance and open up Rakiura National Park in Stewart Island, and eventually Kahurangi, so the US military can get the materials it needs for its sophisticated weaponry.
And in return for helping supply the US war machine, why we might just get that free trade deal we’ve been hankering after.
PS. Oh and if you thought gold mining is a dirty, polluting business with its cyanide-laced tailing ponds, you should see what chemicals they have to use to leach out rare earths.