NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Despite news and discussion about rare earth materials of late, there should not be a shortage of these materials for another couple of years, according to Frontier Rare Earths CEO James Kenny.
Rare earth materials are used in applications such as magnets, wind turbines, LED lights, hybrid cars, batteries and night vision goggles.
President Barack Obama announced last week he plans to challenge China's rare earth export quotas. The United States, European Union and Japan subsequently filed a related dispute with the World Trade Organization against China.
China produces more than 90% of the globe's rare earths supply but Kenny said that "there are actually more rare earths outside of China than there are inside of China." These materials are located in areas that haven't gotten to the production phase yet, he said.Kenny estimated the ramp-up from exploration to production can take between 15 and 20 years. His company has a target to be online with its Zandkopsdrift facility in Southern Africa in 2015. Kenny estimated that the U.S. has about 13 million tons in rare earths deposits. To put that into context, when Zandkopsdrift comes online, it is expected to produce about 20,000 tonnes of separated rare earth oxides a year and the mine should have a life of about 20 years. There seems to be a delicate balance now between China producing most of the world's rare earths supply -- and also consuming the biggest share of it, according to Kenny -- and new mines in various areas working on getting to the production phase. China is also expected to become an importer of rare earths around 2015, noted Kenny, who doesn't see the potential for a shortage until around that time. Kenny thinks Obama and the other governments are bringing this issue to the forefront now because WTO cases take time. "It typically takes the WTO 18 months to two years to rule on trade challenges," Dahlman Rose analysts wrote in a report Tuesday. In the meantime, Kenny said companies that depend on rare earths are looking more long-term and trying to lock in their future supply now. He pointed to Siemens (SI) forming a joint venture with Australian rare earths company Lynas (LYC) and Korean Resources' strategic partnership with Frontier, both of which happened last year, as ways that companies and even sometime sovereigns securing their future supply. Korean Resources is forming a consortium with firms such as Samsung, Hyundai and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Group, among others, to join the joint venture with Frontier, Kenny said. But if there is a rare earths shortage, it could hit companies pretty hard on their bottom lines. For example, Guggenheim analysts said last week that TRW Automotive (TRW) had rare earth inflation in 2011 to the tune of about $50 million pretax, which came out to an earnings impact of 25 cents a share. -- Written by Alexandra Zendrian in New York.
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