The General Accounting Office warned key Congressional committees that the U.S. lacks the ability to process rare earth minerals used for a wide array of electronics and national defense products. Last year, China produced 97% of the world's rare earth oxides.
The study noted it takes 7 to 15 years to develop new mines in the U.S., with Mineweb saying "factors which may impact the rebuilding of a U.S. rare earth supply chain would include capital investment, the ability to develop processing plants, and environmental concerns which could make rare earth minerals extraction difficult and costly."
"The GAO found that the use of rare earth materials is widespread in defense systems such as precision-guided munitions, lasers, communications system, radar systems, avionics, night vision equipment and satellites." [right, use of rare earths in the auto industry. Credit, Molycorp]
The Mountain Pass mine in California is seen as the only US mine that could be producing by 2012. The US still lacks the processing capability to refine the oxides to metals.