SUNDANCE, Wyo. – A Canadian company hoping to compete with China’s near-monopoly of rare earth elements – metals critical for everything from U.S. military weaponry to wind turbines – wants to open a strip mine inside a national forest in northeast Wyoming.
Processing raw ore into rare earths is an intensive operation that has been associated with radioactive water spills. But with China slashing exports of rare earths and Washington concerned the U.S. military could face a shortage of materials for lasers, smart bombs, guided missiles, night-vision goggles and jet engines, Don Ranta is optimistic about his Black Hills National Forest mine proposal.
“Everything we’ve seen so far looks very, very bullish for it to be a commercial project,” said Ranta, CEO of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Rare Element Resources. If approved and if it goes into production, the mine would be located about 15 miles from Devils Tower National Monument, the nation’s first national monument.
For its particular combination of rare earths, Wyoming’s Bear Lodge Mountains rank close behind a mine at Mountain Pass in southeastern California as North America’s best verified source of the minerals, said John Kaiser, editor of the Kaiser Bottom Fish website, which tracks global metals markets and mining companies.
“In the long run, I think it will end up being even bigger than Mountain Pass,” Kaiser said.
Rare earths are 17 minerals used to make many products that didn’t exist all that long ago. Neodymium is used to make magnets in the electric motors of hybrid cars. Europium goes into compact fluorescent bulbs.
Rare earths with critical military applications include samarium, used for super-strong samarium-cobalt magnets that help steer guided missiles. The General Accounting Office, Congress’ auditing arm, reported in April that the Navy’s Aegis Spy-1 radar, expected to be used for 35 years, uses samarium-cobalt magnets that will need replacement during the system’s service life. Defense contractors use China-supplied neodymium magnets in motors used to build fuel-saving hybrid electric drives for U.S. Navy destroyers, the GAO reported.
Rare earths aren’t scarce. But few places exist with enough concentrations to mine profitably, and they are difficult to isolate in a purified form.
Cheap labor and low environmental standards enabled China to dominate the rare earths market starting in the 1990s, and the country currently supplies 97 percent of the world rare earths market.
But even as demand soars for rare earths, China is cracking down on rare earths smuggling and cutting legal exports. Together, that will reduce the global rare earths market by 25 percent.
The result will likely be dramatically less rare earths on the global market, Kaiser said, until new sources can be mined.
“That’s going to cause a serious problem for users outside China,” he said.
Global rare earths prices have soared in recent months, in some cases up to six-fold. In January, President Barack Obama signed a defense spending authorization ordering Defense Secretary Robert Gates to ensure U.S. access to rare earths.
Mountain Pass is the only U.S. mine producing rare earths. Mining there ceased because of heavy Chinese competition in 2002 and only resumed in December amid the much-improved market outlook.
In 1998, Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Molycorp Minerals Inc., operator of the Mountain Pass mine, paid a $410,000 fine after being accused of spilling 350,000 gallons of wastewater from the facility. The water contained lead and radioactive elements including uranium and thorium.
A $500 million reconstruction of the mine, begun in January, will produce rare earths more cheaply by recycling and reusing processing acids, according to company spokesman Jim Sims. He said the technique would allow lower production costs than the Chinese, “with a dramatically smaller environmental footprint.”
Other potentially important untapped rare earths reserves exist in Quebec, Canada’s Northwest Territories and Alaska, Kaiser said.
Rare Element Resources doesn’t immediately plan to refine ore into rare earth oxides at the Bear Lodge Mountains, which could add $150 million to the project’s $87 million estimated cost, Ranta said.
He suggested Molycorp could for a time process the Wyoming ore, enabling his company to focus on the first significant commercial mining operation in Black Hills National Forest since the World War II era.
For a Wyoming mountain range, the Bear Lodge Mountains are obscure – barely over a mile high. Both Devils Tower and the rare earths deposits are relics of volcanic activity 40 million to 60 million years ago.
Rare Element Resources’ strip mine would be up to 500 feet deep, though Ranta, a geologist, said that would be small compared to the vast strip mines 60 miles to the west that produce much of the nation’s coal.
His company has secured 16 square miles of mining claims inside the forest and plans to continue drilling sampling holes after seeing promising concentrations of rare earths in samples taken last year, Ranta said.
Talk about rare earths mining has drawn little attention in Wyoming. But environmentalist Nancy Hilding, president of the Prairie Hills Audubon Society of western South Dakota, said mining companies often fail to protect groundwater as promised.
Any national forest development is subject to intensive review, said forest spokesman Frank Carroll. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality also would need to approve a mine. It has taken no position on Rare Element’s proposal.
The final feasibility study for the mine is not expected until the end of 2012.
“Let’s start producing rare earths in the United States so that we start having a self-sufficient supply,” Ranta said.
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