Report: US needs more domestic sources for critical minerals

  • Bokan Mountain, the rocky peak at above right on Prince of Wales Island, is the largest US deposit of valuable rare earth minerals. The deposit is located where Dodson Ridge, at above left, runs down toward Kendrick Bay. Development of US sources for rare earths and other critical minerals is the focus of a recent Commerce Department report issued in response to an executive order by President Donald Trump. (Photo/Courtesy/Ucore Inc.)

Filling the country’s domestic deficit of numerous minerals and metals has been a priority of the Trump administration, which on June 4 released a plan for addressing what it considers to be a national security issue.

The Commerce Department report, entitled, “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals” lays out the ways in which the administration believes the U.S. can improve domestic control over 31 of the 35 often hard to pronounce minerals designated as “critical” in a May 2018 Interior Department report.

Interior’s critical minerals list notes that the country imports more than 50 percent of its supply of 31 minerals and relies completely on outside sources for 14 of those, including graphite and many minerals that are essential for modern energy storage and advanced technologies.

For several years, the U.S. imported all of its rare earth elements — used in very small quantities in many electronic devices from smartphones to components for fighter jets — until the Mountain Pass rare earths mine in southern California reopened last year.

The Interior Department also highlights the fact that China is the country’s primary source for many of the minerals it imports, which provides leverage to a government the administration is now at odds with over trade issues.

The reports were compiled following a December 2017 Executive Order signed by President Donald Trump directing the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and Interior departments to prioritize addressing the nation’s critical mineral situation.

Among the priorities in the critical minerals strategy is a push for federal agencies to thoroughly assess the country’s resources for the various imported minerals and for specifically the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to reform their land-use planning methods to protect access to those resources.

BLM oversees 245 million acres of federal land — about 10 percent of the country — and subsurface mineral rights to roughly 700 million acres. According to the bureau, BLM-controlled lands hold approximately 30 percent of the nation’s minerals. The Forest Service manages nearly 193 million acres.

The report states that many mineral deposits cannot be developed because of existing land withdrawals, reservations or other land-use restrictions. It notes that those designations can serve useful purposes for everything from wildlife protection to military use, but recommends the Forest Service and BLM coordinate with the U.S. Geological Survey along with state and Tribal governments and mining industry representatives to evaluate areas with use restrictions for mineral resources.

“Any (mineral resource) analysis performed should quantify and qualify the economic and national security implications of: reducing the size of an existing withdrawal, reducing the area affected by a land-use designation, changing planning allocations, or revoking an existing withdrawal,” the report states.

It further emphasizes a desire to prioritize reviews of withdrawn areas based on the potential for discoveries of critical minerals.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she welcomed the strategy report in a statement from her office.

“(The report) provides clear direction on how to reduce our reliance on foreign minerals and thereby strengthen our economy and national security. I urge the administration to swiftly implement its recommendations, especially those that encourage domestic mineral production and continued research into processing technologies, and will continue my work to compliment these efforts with new legislative authorities,” she said.

In May, Murkowski co-sponsored the American Mineral Security Act along with Sen. Dan Sullivan, which, among other things, would require the Interior Department to update a list of critical minerals every three years.

The Mineral Security Act would also mandate nationwide assessments for the availability of each mineral on the critical list as well as direct Interior and Forest Service mineral project permitting reforms aimed at reducing the time to reach permit decisions and authorize research for critical mineral recycling or replacement materials.

While many policymakers and national security experts regularly raise concerns about the United States’ reliance on China for many of the minerals the country imports — such as graphite, rare earths, bismuth, barite and others — the strategy recommends strengthening trade ties with current geopolitical partners and allied countries that could be preferable sources for some minerals.

Bokan rare earths

Alaska is rich in many minerals and a deposit near the southern tip of the state has the potential to be a significant domestic source of rare earth elements.

The Bokan Mountain rare earth underground mine prospect near tidewater on southern Prince of Wales Island holds more than 4.7 million metric tons of indicated rare earth ore, according to a 2015 resource assessment by Nova Scotia-based Ucore Rare Metals Inc., the company working on the project. That translates to approximately 63.5 million pounds of collective rare earth metals.

However, Ucore has shifted its attention away from advancing the mine since 2015 following a drastic fall in global rare earth prices. Instead, the company has focused on developing a small mineral processing facility in nearby Ketchikan by late 2020.

Ucore leaders have discussed the prospect of financing at least part of the estimated $25 million strategic minerals complex through the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. The Alaska Legislature in 2014 authorized AIDEA to issue up to $145 million in bonds to help finance the Bokan mine project, which the company estimated in 2013 would cost $221 million to develop.

Ucore CEO Jim McKenzie said recent U.S.-China trade tensions have highlighted the importance of addressing domestic mineral supply issues and have recently boosted prices particularly for heavy rare earth elements.

There are 17 minerals defined as rare earth elements, but “heavy” rare earths — such as europium, terbium, and ytterbium with a greater atomic weight — are the most sought after and are used in products that rely on high-temperature magnets. More common lighter rare earths are used in a plethora of applications including LED displays.

Heavy rare earths account for roughly 40 percent of the mineralization at Bokan, according to Ucore.

“The Bokan deposit is unique in the U.S., with its unusual skew towards these valuable (heavy rare earth elements). Bokan is also unique in its ease of access, its limited projected development cost, and its significant financial backing by the State of Alaska,” McKenzie said in a formal statement. “We applaud the Trump administration for identifying these critical resources and streamlining their route to production.”

Ucore officials declined to comment on the progress of the Ketchikan processing facility because of Utah and Nova Scotia court battles the company is in with Utah-based IBC Advanced Technologies, a metal processing technology company Ucore had entered into a joint-venture agreement with. The companies are now in litigation over that agreement.

Ucore Vice President Randy MacGillivray did write via email that the company completed drilling and resource assessment work in 2014 and is satisfied with the results of the 2013 preliminary economic assessment of the Bokan project. Once Ucore officials decide to move ahead with the mine, they expect it will require two-plus years of permitting before construction can begin, according to MacGillivray.

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Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
06/19/2019 - 9:36am

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