Light Crude and Heavy Metal

Last week, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee told MSBN "The precious metals chromium tantalum and titanium are vital to the nation's weapons systems.

Last week, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee told MSBN "The precious metals chromium tantalum and titanium are vital to the nation's weapons systems." His host, Lou Dobbs hastened to reply, "Those rare earths come from only one mine in California. It should not be sold to China as part of some…free market program."  But chromium and titanium are not precious, the earths in question are not rare, and that mine is far from unique. "Strategic metals "is a perennially misunderstood policy concept with a strange life of its own.

Victorian historians bent theories of Phoenician Imperialism to fit the idea of tin as a Bronze Age strategic metal tout court. But modern archaeology of materials reveals that ancient metallurgists used everything from Arsenic to Zinc to make metal fit for military use. Thirty years ago, the 'Geopolitics' lobby backed Paul Ehrlich's famous bet that metals would get scarcer. Erhlich Lost, yet winner Julian Simon's correct view of an abundant demand-driven metals supply did not still their fears of the Soviets conspiring to deny free nations vital military materiel. Times have changed, and science too, but the theories archaeologists and historians put forth still very much reflect their own very savage anthropology.

In 1975, many conservatives insisted apartheid's overthrow would disarm the Western world. They predicted a Marxist stranglehold on cobalt from the Congo and uranium from Namibia as well as South African chromium vanadium platinum and diamonds would halt production of jets, missiles nuclear submarines and tanks. The argument gained force from the Soviets having all those minerals and more.  But the Reagan administration discovered that the poker game at the Periodic Table was penny ante.  Though the West lost its lock on South Africa's treasure chest, and chaos descended in Zimbabwe and the Congo, metals supplies mostly rose and prices mostly fell. We had indeed depended on importing most of our supply of many metals, but few realized how little of them actually went into new military hardware.

Resource geopolitics is old as dreadnaught naval strategy, when the gross tonnage of armor plate really mattered.  But progress happens, and the meltdown of strategic metals as a policy issue mirrors the rise of modern materials science. Aluminum cans and clean rooms have put paid to British fleets shepherding tin dredge flotillas, or Indiana Jones plucking exotic crystals from the caverns of the Third World. Modern geochemistry and the symmetry of plate tectonics itself have further eroded the supply paradigm, for eminent 'Strategic minerals' occur by the ton wherever beach sands run black with rutile and monazite. You can mine titanium and rare earths (and a bit of uranium too) on both sides of any ocean from Coromandel to Coney Island.

The only thing special about the rich California lode that Unocal owns and China is said to covet is its low production costs. Where were the Sino-geostrategists last year, when Russians acquired a hefty interest in America's only big platinum-palladium mine?

FEMA long held vast stockpiles of metal ores and ingots, and warlike commodities like raw opium and, no kidding, Chinese duck feathers -- the gold standard of W.W.II sleeping bag stuffing. A lot of this odd booty, dating to John Kenneth Galbraith's days as price control Czar, was sold off long ago.  If some minerals and metals retain strategic significance, it owes less to true rarity than our national aversion to holes in the ground. 

The EPA's addiction to draconian regulation can make opening a new   mine a nightmare: you don't see China bidding for US coalfields.  It already has the world's largest, and is the world's foremost exporter of rare earths too. It produces them copiously, not by mining, but by processing iron slag the Manchurian steel industry would otherwise throw away.  High tech friendly rare earth elements sell like hot cakes, but somehow, nobody wants to try the rest as lawn food or dietary supplements. The resulting glut has sent magnetically attractive neodymium slumming as far down market as refrigerator doors. But what about gadolinium, the Neo Geo element de-jour?

Its brilliant response to neutrons, x- and gamma rays commends it mightily to the bomb finding classes. But a gadolinium boom based on anti-terrorism gadgetry would be a one shot affair. For all the hype, there's a lot more laying around in the flints of lighters seized at airports than the nation's lasers need.  Calling Gadolinium rare can't make it so when, in reality, it is half as common as lead.  Some metals really are rarer than gold, and the inelastic supply of a few useful ones makes for volatile prices. Chinese commodity demand buoyed copper prices- how could a billion new consumers craving pots pans and appliances fail to?  But the real high flyer is rhodium, the rarer than platinum petroleum cracking catalyst that helps China's new state of the art refineries digest oil from all over the world.

To maintain flexibility as oil supplies vary in quality as well as quantity America needs state of the art refineries.  But none have been built in decades because environmental regulation precludes new sites.  Perhaps the only place that might serve is an abandoned naval base as oil saturated as, well, a refinery. Likewise, many really rare metals that retain their bang per buck once came from the toxic sludge of base metal plants ringing New York Harbor. Could Uncle Sam's most strategic stockpile be his surplus of superfund sites and grimy waterfront real estate? It's a geopolitical question.  

A state of perpetual warfare exists between believers in the primordial pacifism of man and those who think warfare his essential heritage.  PBS current television production of Jared Diamond's" Guns Germs and Steel " evidences Liberalism's undying love affair with materialism.