From the Wall Street Journal:
The skyrocketing cost of rare-earth metals from China is pushing up the cost of gasoline production in the U.S., the latest sign of the wide-reaching impact of Beijing's decision to restrict exports of the minerals.
Prices for some of the chemicals refiners use to process gasoline have risen exponentially after China, which controls about 95% of the world's rare-earth supply, said it would reduce exports of the metals by 35% in 2011.
The increase could raise gasoline-production costs by about a penny a gallon and potentially lead some refiners to cut back on fuel production to protect their profits.
Rare earths are elements that go into high-tech batteries, television sets and military technology. Two of the most commonly used in the catalyst component of refiners' gasoline-making fluid catalytic cracking units, or FCCUs, are lanthanum and cerium, both of which more than tripled in price between the second and third quarters of 2010, according to Australian rare-earth supplier Lynas Corp. LTD.
Although rare earths account for only up to 4% of catalysts used in these units, their recent price increase has added as much as an extra 25% to catalyst costs, according to the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, a group representing the sector.
The increase comes as U.S. refiners are getting back on their feet financially after years of low demand and tight profit margins. Refiners such as Valero Energy Corp. and Sunoco Inc. sold some of their plants in 2010 to rid themselves of poor-performing assets.
"Any kind of increase, especially in today's markets and conditions, is significant," said NPRA President Charlie Drevna.
The increase could pinch refiners even more if crude-oil prices suddenly spike past $100 a barrel, as their process and raw-material costs would rise faster than they can pass them along to consumers, industry analysts said. A slower rise in crude prices would allow refiners some wiggle room in regaining their costs at the pump.
There are about 100 FCCUs in the U.S.'s 150 refineries, ranging in capacity from more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day to less than 10,000. The typical 50,000 barrel-a-day FCCU uses an average of seven tons a day of catalyst to help remove impurities from what will become gasoline and diesel, with the increase in rare-earth prices projected to cost its owner an extra $147,000 a month, said Bob Ludolph, principal petroleum refining consultant for Ludolph Technology Consultancy Inc. Catalysts are generally a refinery's second highest raw material cost after crude oil, Mr. Ludolph said.
That would add about a penny to the production cost of each gallon of gasoline made——not necessarily enough to make the consumer notice if it was passed straight to the pump, but enough to make some refiners think about scaling back production to protect their margins, according to an industry analyst.
Adding to the cost is the U.S. drive for cleaner-burning gasoline and diesel, which requires refiners to use more catalysts, according to the NPRA.
Refiners acknowledged that catalyst costs are growing but declined to elaborate. Valero, which is the largest U.S. independent refiner and operates 12 FCCUs ranging in capacity from 24,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil a day, will probably address the issue during its fourth-quarter earnings conference call, company spokesman Bill Day said....MORE