The Race is on for Rare Earth Metals
Updated: Oct 15, 2022
It’s not just new projects that are getting a boost; decades-old proposals that withered in the face of environmental opposition are now being dusted off and given a new green sheen. What were once just gaping global corporate-profit machines are being reborn as essential to the push to decarbonize — with the added benefit of maybe showering oodles of cash on mining executives and shareholders.
This boom will be fueled by federal enticements and incentives designed to spur domestic production of these critical minerals. The Inflation Reduction Act’s $7,500 credit for electric vehicle purchases, for example, will apply only to cars with domestically mined battery materials. Plus, lithium, cobalt and nickel mine production will net mine operators a 10% tax credit, nothing to scoff at if you’re a billion-dollar corporation, or even if you’re not.
In December 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring the 600,000-vehicle federal fleet to shift to zero-emissions by 2035 as part of an effort to leverage government buying power to “catalyze America’s clean energy economy.”
This substantially increases the demand for the so-called energy transition minerals that go into electric vehicles, their batteries, and the charging infrastructure for lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel and rare earth elements. Currently, these minerals are largely mined outside of the U.S., in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and so on. But with the expected electric vehicle-manufacturing surge on its way, officials from both the auto and mining industries are calling on the federal government to streamline mine permitting to bring the supply chain closer to home. The projected demand and the rise in metal prices are breathing new life into Western copper mines and spurring dozens of proposals for new mines from Wyoming to Oregon and Nevada to Arizona.
The impact of proposed mining projects across the west goes beyond rational understanding for the average person. Initially a heavy burden on the indigenous tribes and ultimately on the American population at large.
Here are proposed projects to give you a perspective of what is currently being proposed and the potential impact of these proposals:
Idaho: Perpetua Resources plans to construct an open-pit gold and antimony mine in the defunct Stibnite mining district east of McCall. Historic mining in the area ravaged the landscape and degraded water quality, harming the salmon on which the Nez Perce people depend. Tribal members fear the new mine will bring its own problems. Perpetua says it plans to restore the river and improve water quality.
Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho: Australia-based Jervois Global has begun work on the nation’s only active underground cobalt mine just outside the Frank Church Wilderness. The Idaho Conservation League dropped its opposition years ago, after the developers agreed to treat the water in perpetuity and store waste securely to protect down-stream water quality.
Thacker Pass, Nevada: Proposed by Canada-based Lithium Americas, this open-pit mine would target one of the nation’s largest lithium deposits. The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Northern Paiute group Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) oppose the project, which is on tribal homelands and was the site of two massacres of Indigenous people in the 1800s. The project would use about 1.7 billion gallons of water per year.
Salton Sea, California: Australia-based Controlled Thermal Resources — with backing from General Motors — is drilling deep under the Salton Sea to produce geothermal energy from super heated water. The company plans to tap the wastewater for lithium.
Boron, California: Mining giant Rio Tinto is extracting lithium from waste rock at its huge boron mine in the California desert. It hopes to achieve commercial production levels this year.
Cholla Canyon Ranch, Arizona: The mining company (USA Lithium Ltd., which has since been acquired by Hawkstone Mining Ltd.) hadn’t told the Hualapai Tribe it was searching for lithium on nearby Bureau of Land Management lands. That evening, Ivan Bender (caretaker of the Hualapai Tribe’s Cholla Canyon Ranch, and the first to discover exploratory drilling around the perimeter of the tribe’s property), was shocked to see the destruction taking place. The company eventually bulldozed a network of roads, drilling nearly 50 test wells more than 300 feet deep in the sacred landscape.
Oregon: Although there are no active proposals to mine nickel in the West, deposits are scattered across the region. In the 1980s, southern Oregon’s Nickel Mountain Mine was the nation’s only combined nickel mine and smelter, but it shut down due to falling prices.
Demand from electric cars alone, which contain up to four times as much copper as gas models, is projected to rise from half a million tons today to as much as 3.3 million tons in 2030. “Copper is the new green,” the Resolution Copper website states.
Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona: Canada-based Hudbay hopes to capitalize on the projected rise in copper demand with its proposed Rosemont open-pit mine south of Tucson. Hudbay’s website says that “the copper mined at Rosemont will support a cleaner and more interconnected economy.” The proposal has hit regulatory and legal obstacles in recent months, and its fate remains uncertain.
Oak Flat, Arizona: In 1955, President Eisenhower designated 760 acres of Oak Flat as public land to shield it from mining; during Nixon’s presidency, it landed on the National Register of Historic Places. Copper was discovered in 1995. Rio Tinto, the British Australian mining conglomerate that is Resolution Copper’s majority owner, began a decade-long lobbying campaign to access the ore.
The colossal project also threatens to deplete groundwater as the Southwest faces a historic megadrought. James Wells, a hydrologist commissioned by the San Carlos Apache, has flatly concluded that “Arizona does not have enough water to accommodate this large new demand.” A new report that reveals that the mine would use enough water to supply a city of 140,000 annually for its estimated life.
RARE EARTH ELEMENTS
Mountain Pass, California: The nation’s only operating rare earths mine is in the Clark Mountains near the Nevada border. During the 1980s and ’90s, the mine was plagued by pipeline ruptures, hazardous waste spills and other environmental problems.
Bokan Mountain, Alaska: UCore Rare Metals Alaska is slowly working toward developing a rare earth mine in southeast Alaska on Prince of Wales Island.
Bear Lodge Mountain, Wyoming: After commencing exploratory drilling for rare earth metals at this northeast Wyoming site near Sundance, Rare Element Resources suspended its permit application with the U.S. Forest Service in 2016, citing low metal prices and lack of funding.
White Mesa Mill, Utah: The only operating uranium mill in the U.S., located in southeast Utah, has been retooled to also process rare earth elements.
Carson City, Nevada: A study last year found that recycled retired batteries could supply more than half of the global demand for cobalt, lithium, manganese and nickel by 2040, thereby reducing the need for new mines. Nevada-based Redwood Materials, led by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel, says it can recover more than 95% of the critical minerals from recycled batteries. The company recently announced that it will produce recycled copper foils for Panasonic, for use in battery anodes manufactured at the Tesla Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada.