Does the Prius have an Achilles heel?

Hybrid technology depends on rare minerals currently produced mostly in China. The Saudi oil sheiks must be pleased

Published September 2, 2009 8:06PM (EDT)

"Just A Grunt" at the previously unknown-to-me blog, JammieWearingFool, seems perversely delighted to learn that the Prius depends on a class of rare earth elements for its battery technology. The fact that 90 percent of the world's production of such rare earth elements currently comes from China, and the commissars may (or may not) be thinking of restricting their export for domestic strategic reasons, leads to some chortling over the possibility that "making hybrid vehicles which run on electricity... may prove to be a dead end or at least a very costly one."

Sort of funny, too, which natural resources are evil while others are okay to strip away from Mother Earth as long as they mesh with the liberal enviro-wacko philosophy.

So just like rushing to embrace ethanol has led to higher food prices and increased starvation in other parts of the world due to food sources being diverted to make energy, so too it looks like this rush to embrace hybrids will only lead to higher automobile prices along with depletion of other resources. The higher vehicle prices don't bother the environmental crowd -- they would just as soon all automobiles would disappear and everybody be reduced to walking or riding a bike--but I bet they are tying themselves in knots trying to explain why oil is bad but these so-called rare earth minerals are okay.

Let me take a stab at it, although jousting with people who brandish the word "enviro-wacko" is unlikely to result in a harmonic concordance of views, no matter how airtight my logic might be.

The first answer seems rather obvious. Burning fossil fuels contributes to an increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is thought by the majority of scientists who have studied this issue to be resulting in warmer temperatures. So, those of us who consider ourselves prudent, and want to plan for the future, believe that we should do whatever we can to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. I expect Just A Grunt will consider that just a bunch of enviro-wacko bullshit, but HTWW will side with the scientists on this one, and not the jammie-wearing-fools.

As a second point, it might be worth noting that China's dominance of the rare earth market is unlikely to be permanent, and doesn't seem to be geographically determined. There is at least one location in the United States known to have huge deposits of rare earth elements, previously mined by a company called Molycorp, and as worldwide demand has grown, interest in exploration and development in other regions is rising as well. The main reason why China has ended up the de facto market king appears to be basic supply-and-demand capitalism. No one else could make any money digging up the stuff.

From Reuters:

But as Chinese production and exports grew through the 1990s, rare earth prices worldwide plunged, undercutting business for Molycorp, then owned by oil company Unocal.

Mountain Pass operations came under further pressure after a 1996 wastewater spill. Mining there ceased in 2002 when Molycorp's old permit expired.

"Most companies that were in the business stopped producing because it wasn't profitable anymore," said James Hedrick, a rare earths specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

There is a larger point that awaits delving here, which is the earth's potential to support unlimited technological innovation and industrial growth on a limited resource base. Maybe there aren't enough deposits of rare earth elements on the planet for 9 billion people to drive hybrids. I don't know.

What I do know is that prices make a big difference. If the price of rare earth elements gets too high, I have no doubt that the smart engineers at Toyota will find a workaround. That, of course, is the point of that enviro-wacko strategy to get a cap-and-trade or carbon-tax system in place that ensures that the price of burning fossil fuels reflects the negative environmental externalities imposed on the planet. Getting the prices right.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Energy Global Warming How The World Works Rare Earth Elements