top of page

The Samarium File

If you happen to have caught the Netflix wave, or got the box-set, you might have seen House of Cards, the US political satire transposed from the Palace of Westminster to the White House.

Kevin Spacey is brilliant as the scheming Vice President, and his wife, played by Robin Wright, makes for a more than passable modern Lady Macbeth. Like an advert for political Frigidaire®, the overvaulting ambition of the husband-wife team has already committed a Duncan-like murder, but so far without much sign of the guilt that eats away at the Macbeth family. Perhaps that’s to come in Series 3 which starts at the end of February.

Rare Earths

However, the terribly minor thing that caught my eye was the use of the Rare Earth market as a plotline. Much hinges on Raymond Tusk, the double-dealing energy-billionaire confidant of the President, who is in bed with the Chinese over a refinery to make Rare Earths – especially samarium with which the Chinese are said to be holding the West to ransom.

Ring a bell? Could this be the same set of Rare Earths that the US National Academy of Sciences wrote about in 2007 in their Critical Minerals report citing US vulnerability to China’s 97% control of RE resources?  – the same Rare Earth group that saw prices of elements such as Neodymium rise from $20 per kg in 2010 to $550 per kg by 2011/12? It’s art imitating life, isn’t it? Well perhaps not…

In the case of the plot of House of Cards the RE project is meant to give credence to conspiracy theories that policy is not made in Congress or Parliament but in nefarious dealings by big business behind closed doors. House of Cards came out on Netflix in 2013, so it means the writers caught wind of the Rare Earth scandal around 2012, as the froth was hitting the headlines of newspapers previously blissfully unaware of Rare Earths.

Rare Earths?

Some minor metals people, but not all by any means, knew better. We knew that the lanthanide group, lazily roped together as Rare Earths, are geologically well spread across the globe; only that China, with less vaunted environmental standards, and a certain amount of ingenuity, exploited this backwater of the resource industry when we had chosen not to. So, in Washington, when rumours of US exposure to China’s unhealthy grip on these apparently strategic metals rose to the fore, we were only too xenophobically keen to see a dastardly plot.

Burst Bubble

The short Rare Earth boom, which saw widows and orphans, as well as private equity, dragged into a bubble of investment in elements about which they may have never previously heard, and from which they will be unlikely ever to profit, has now fully collapsed. Out of something like 150 mining projects mooted in 2011, the last three standing – Steenkampskraal in South Africa, Mountain Pass in California USA, and  Lynas in Australia – are all now tottering too.

The coup de grâce, if it may be called that, was delivered this month in the most ironic action of all – the Chinese government’s retraction of export quotas, supposedly to abide by World Trade Organization rules. To hurt the West, you see, quotas are no longer needed. 

Art and Life

So five years on from the Rare Earth crisis, we are rather close to where we were at the beginning. The only difference is that we have a drama to show for it called House of Cards which demonstrates that, if life gets it wrong, so does art.

Anthony Lipmann

Published on: (03/02/15)


bottom of page