Rare Earths at Reqo Diq?
By Riaz Haq
The sale of Reqo Diq mining rights is currently being reviewed by the Pakistan Supreme Court in response to allegations of lack of transprarency. The entire discussion in the courtroom is primarily centered on valuations and estimates of traditional metals like gold and copper. The second topic of discussion in the apex court is about the absence of any contract provisions for development of downstream job-creating industries to extract these metals.
What is conspicuously absent from the debate is the potential for extraction at Reqo Diq of rare earth elements that are even more precious and in much greater demand for the latest high-tech equipment and batteries for all-electric autos, communications, and other applications than traditional precious metals like gold and silver. It is the estimates of these rare earths at Reqo Diq that could put the value of the contract at considerably more than the current best estimates of $500 billion for copper and gold.
Recent trade disputes between China and its major trading partners in the United States, Europe and Japan have been the result of China restricting rare earth exports.
A current production Toyota Prius nickel metal hydride battery pack uses 30 kilograms of nickel, 2 kilograms of cobalt and 12 kilograms of lanthanum because the active hydrogen storage alloy in the battery is either LaNi4.5Co0.5 or (Ce, La, Nd, Pr)Ni5. The Prius assembly plant in Japan has so far used one and 1.5 million rechargeable nickel metal hydride battery packs and achieved with them some of the lowest numbers of service issues ever seen in the OEM automotive industry. In fact most of the original Prius rechargeable nickel metal hydride battery packs have exceeded their eight-year 100,000 mile warranty and are still functioning, according to Resource Investor website.
China controls 95% of the world’s supply of rare earth elements, a class of ores used not just in Toyota Prius electric motors and batteries but in a wide range of high-technology applications, from sonar systems to wind turbines, mobile phones and fluorescent lights.
All this gives China an extraordinary - some might say unfair - advantage to lead the race to dominate the manufacture of cutting-edge technology, according to the Wall Street Journal. Even before any major technology partnership announcements, there are reports that the legendary US investor Warren Buffet is investing in BYD, an obscure Chinese battery, mobile phone, and electric car company.
Here is how an expert who asked not to be named explained the mining potential in Balochistan:
"The Pegmatite rock that covers much of Balochistan (and other parts of Pakistan as well) has several different gems, in it which have been mined for a long time. These are easy to visualize as they differ in color from the rest of the rock, and can be removed with a small geologist's hammer. Pegmatite, though, also contains uranium which can be separated using a Geiger counter, and rare metals and rare earths. Some of these like Lithium can be separated relatively easily. Others like Samarium and Dysprosium are vastly more difficult to separate because you need X-ray equipment to help identify them. Also, their presence is very small - that is why they are classed as "rare." The presence of many of these metals was not known to science until recently and until the Japanese began to use them in electronics, hardly any effort was made to mine them. Now, of course, they are all the rage because they have been found especially useful in the latest "green" generation equipment as well as in defense and other applications. Indeed, until China banned their sale to Japan, no one really even bothered about them - it suited the Japanese to remain quiet as they were getting very good prices for these resources from an unaware Chinese, and the same thing is now happening in other parts of the world, in Pakistan in this case.
Much of the testing that is involved here is difficult and requires very advanced technical equipment, and even methods like gas spectrometry etc may not help identify materials that exist in extremely small percentages in soil or rock. In India, for example, some of these metal reserves were not known until the USGS first and then the Russians helped analyze soil and rocks across the country. If nothing else, the Indians formed a government owned company called Indian Rare earths Limited which comes under the Atomic Energy Commission and is directly under the Prime Minister of India. They do seem to have handled the conservation and exploitation of these reserves far better than is being done in Pakistan."
Given the potential for tremendous mineral wealth at Reqo Diq, Saindak and other similar sites in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan, it is extremely important for the Supreme Court to insist on an independent panel of experts to evaluate it, and to base court orders on the findings of such a panel. How the Supreme Court tackles these issues now will have a significant impact on the future well-being of Pakistan in terms of the availability of public funds for spending on education, health care and other badly needed human development projects in Balochistan and elsewhere in the country.