WA to become rare earths world leader with Federal pledge

As demand continues to grow for critical minerals, WA is in the box seat to take advantage of some unique opportunities.

Cannings Purple 20 Nov 2019
3 mins
Rare earths are key components of defence hardware - including jet fighters.

Western Australia’s potential to become a global leader in the rare earths space has again been underlined with a Federal Government pledge to increase funding available to vital projects.

Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Matt Canavan, confirmed last Thursday that funding under the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, Export Finance Australia and Defence Export Facility programs will now be made available to projects that boost the country’s ability to extract and process critical minerals.

Among the companies which could benefit from the changes is Northern Minerals, which hopes its Browns Range project in WA’s north will allow it to become the first significant heavy rare earths mine outside of China.

The announcement comes at an important time for the expanding critical minerals sector. This week officials from the US and Australia signed a memorandum of understanding pledging cooperation to secure a steady supply chain of critical mineral resources, to meet the booming US demands for electric vehicles, smartphones, jet aircrafts, and solar panels.

Geoscience Australia and the US Geological Survey have also signed a project agreement paving the way for both nations to work more closely on understanding each country’s geological resource potential for critical minerals, including rare earth elements, and developing a path to supply arrangements.

“We are determined to develop our heavy rare earth and critical mineral assets for the benefit of Australia and our technology-driven industries,” Minister Canavan said.

“By allowing proponents to secure financing through both EFA and the NAIF, we are enhancing opportunities for our critical mineral sector.

“This opens up new opportunities in trade and manufacturing, creating jobs of the future for thousands of Australians.”

A new Critical Minerals Facilitation Office will open next year to help businesses secure investment, financing and market access for critical mineral projects.

According to the Federal Government media release, “the office will also support international cooperation to help diversify critical minerals supply chains”.

China has long been the dominant world player in the rare earths sector, producing around 80 per cent of the world’s rare earth metals.

Minister for Defence, Senator Linda Reynolds, a long-term advocate for Western Australia’s rare earths sector, said critical minerals were essential inputs to defence capability and a wide range of advanced technology applications.

“These measures will play a vital role in supporting a secure, ethical and sustainable supply of critical minerals, and in doing that help deliver the capability that keeps Australians safe,” Minister Reynolds said.

Last year, while Australia and the US – the next leading producers – had a combined output of 35,000 tonnes of rare earths, China produced around 120,000 tonnes. China also dominates the processing and conversion of rare earth materials into alloys, metals and magnets.

With ongoing trade tensions between the US and China, the need to find alternative sources of rare earth supplies has become a pressing global concern. In combination with other critical minerals, rare earths are vital ingredients in the manufacturing of mobiles phones, wind turbines, electric cars and fighter jets.

Every one of the current and next round of US military weapons relies on heavy rare earth elements. Their unique properties, such as strong magnetic qualities at high temperatures, help direct precision-guided missile systems, facilitate GPS navigation, and allow for fighter jet pilots to eject safely.

The fact Australia will take delivery of 72 advanced US fighter jets over the next decade confirms that rare earths are essential to the country’s defence strategy.

Coupled with WA’s rich reserves of lithium, the potential to further develop a heavy rare earths industry underscores the state’s unique opportunities around the new energy and battery materials sectors.

A range of well-credentialled speakers, including WA Governor Kim Beazley AC, Mines and Petroleum Minister Bill Johnston and Federal Finance Minister Mathias Corman, highlighted those opportunities at the recent In The Zone – Critical Materials: Securing Indo-Pacific Technology Futures conference in Perth.

Although China has a head start over its rare earth competitors, its progress has also come with significant environmental costs.

The increased funding pool announced this week will help Australian producers advance the case for our nation to provide a cleaner and more sustainable alternative source of heavy rare earth minerals.

Jennifer Kirk is an Associate Director in Cannings Purple’s Government Relations team and spent more than seven years in Canberra working for the Commonwealth Department of Finance, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Commonwealth Treasury. If you need help mapping out your government engagement, contact Jennifer.

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