'House of Cards': A TV Show About Rare Earths

By Daniel McGroarty

Attention, critics of a do-nothing Congress: Recently, a new Congressional mandate went into effect requiring that, forevermore, all flags flown over defense installations be made in America.

Sorry China: You've sold your last cut-rate stars-and-stripes to fly over U.S. defense bases.

You'll just have to content yourself with the Chinese-mined rare earths you're selling to suppliers building key components of the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- components for which, according to news reports, U.S. defense firms have sought and received waivers from the Pentagon. Reason: For the rare earths in question, in spite of the existence of known U.S. rare earths reserves, there's no American alternative -- China's mines are the only source of supply.

This will likely come as news to all but a handful of Congressmen and Senators who track critical metals issues, some of whom are busier rehearsing lines for "House of Cards" promos than studying up on the perils of bolting Chinese-sourced components into the major American weapons systems we'll depend on to defend us in some potential future conflict -- perhaps with China.

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Then again, maybe "House of Cards" is our best hope.

Why? Because just as "Seinfeld" was a "show about nothing," in my circles, "House of Cards" is a "show about rare earths." From that heady moment in season one's finale when billionaire Raymond Tusk -- played by Gerald McRaney -- confides in Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood his yearning for Chinese-sourced Samarium 149 (the better to control nuclear fuel rods with), to his Oval Office comment in the second season on China using export quotas on rare earths as "political levers," this plot line looms larger for me than journalists being shoved in front of metro trains or a faked congressional suicide.

And there's more to come. Apparently -- taking small sips of Season 2 and not having seen the whole series -- the Mandarin-speaking Tusk is in some sort of joint venture with a Chinese oligarch mining rare earths in Fujian Province. According to China experts assembled by The Atlantic to assess the verisimilitude of "House of Cards'" foreign policy, the Fujian reference draws a derisive comment as, so says one China hand, "Most rare earths are in Inner Mongolia!" Yes indeed they are, at the massive Baotau Mine. But the much more sought-after heavy rare earths are prevalent in the southern provinces -- including Fujian, where Beijing is making a $900 million investment to consolidate rare earths mining (and reign in illegal extraction, linking peasant farmers to Chinese organized crime and likely more than a People's Liberation Army general or two).

So score one for the "House of Cards" story team for being one step ahead of the real-world China hands.

And send a worry in the direction of Washington's real world power elite, for whom Samarium is more likely identified as an ancient city in the Middle East than a Mid-Atomic rare earth.

As for the "House of Cards" writers working the next twists in the rare earths storyline, let me help. Start with a quick Google of the 2014 Defense Authorization Act, in which two rare earths, Dysprosium and Yttrium (for which the U.S. is 99 percent dependent on China, including mines in Fujian), are recommended for stockpiling. Stir in the Chinese-sourced rare earths being built into the F-35 fighter. Then take a glance at page six of the 2013 U.S. Geological Survey's Minerals Commodities Survey -- which shows the 17 additional metals and minerals for which the U.S. is 100 percent import-dependent. For 10 of the 17, China is a top three supplier.

I wonder what Raymond Tusk would think of that.

Finally, there's always the video game "Call of Duty: Black Ops II" (don't miss video composer Jack Wall's rare earth elements soundtrack), summed up in one Twitter-worthy online review as "China cuts off rare earths. World War ensues" -- and Eric Van Lustbader's "Bourne Dominion," in which it falls to Jason Bourne to defend the single U.S. rare earths mine from terrorist attack, and in which the fictional president sputters, "Just what the hell are rare earths?"

For all the badmouthing they get from the political class, when it comes to rare earths, Hollywood and the video game industry have apparently done their homework.

So please respect my "House of Cards" Spoiler Alert for whatever happens in the second half of Season 2. I'll hope that more than a few of the real-world Washington power players binge-watching the series find the subject matter informative. Who knows? Maybe they'll be inspired to read up on all the smart phones, iPads, laptops, wind turbines, solar panels -- and advanced weapons platforms -- that depend on rare earths we don't mine and China does.

After all, we shouldn't have to wait for Frank Underwood to assume the presidency in order to have a coherent critical metals policy.

Daniel McGroarty, principal of Carmot Strategic Group, an issues management firm in Washington, D.C., served in senior positions in the White House and at the Department of Defense.

(AP Photo)

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