Illegal mining still a problem for China's rare earths sector
Despite efforts to curtail illegal rare earths mining and production that went into place in 2010, the problems of illegal smuggling and production are still taking a toll on China’s rare-earths industry.
Reuters reported that Su Bo, China’s vice-minister of industry said in comments published at the ministry’s website (www.miit.gov.cn) that the problems have led to a supply glut that has depressed global prices.
"Problems in the industry that have accumulated over the long-term have still not been fundamentally resolved," said Su Bo. “Unplanned exploitation and production of rare earths has affected the normal workings of the market, and illegally-produced rare earth products have reached downstream consumers through a variety of channels or been smuggled abroad, leading to a continuous decline in prices," he said.
China, which supplied 97 percent of the world's rare earths launched a nationwide campaign in 2010 to "rectify" the chaotic and ill-regulated sector to curb severe environmental damage.
The crackdown reduced domestic output and shut hundreds of small and unlicensed miners, processors and traders. It also led to a fourfold spike in export prices and complaints from buyers in Europe, Japan and the United States.
The crackdown has strengthened the position of giant state-backed firms in the industry.
Su said the top 10 rare earth producers, including Minmetals, Chalco and Baotou Rare Earth, now control 99 percent of official national output. They also control 61.5 percent of the country's separation capacity, where material is separated out into individual rare earth ores.
Rare earth prices hit record levels in 2011 but have since slumped, largely as a result of the global economic slowdown, including weaker growth in China, according to Western buyers.
China sold just 16.8 kt (18,500 st) of rare earths in 2012, lower than the permitted quota of 24 kt (26,400 st), Su said.
He gave no indication of the current size of illegal production, but earlier government estimates have suggested that as much as 40 kt (44,000 st) of rare earths have reached the domestic and export market illegally in previous years.
Su said demand was expected to recover, with the supplies of scarcer heavy rare earths likely to get tighter.
Su added that while China needed to continue to restructure the sector and prevent oversupply, it should not impose "excessive controls" over the production of light rare earths and thereby lose market share.