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Some see promise in Wyo’s critical minerals. But are they viable?

The date of: 2020-05-11
viewed: 3

source:Laramie Boomerang

Wyoming’s current coal market decline coincides with a sudden national awareness of the serious shortage of certain critical materials, including several with deposits located in the state.

With residents and lawmakers scrambling for new economic avenues, could Wyoming be the nation’s new go-to source for rare earth elements that now come mainly from China?

Last week, U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barasso sent letters to the Secretaries of Defense and Interior urging the Department of the Interior “to support the full range of domestic rare earths supply chain development, from extraction through separation and purification into the magnets, metals and alloyed forms of rare earths that are critical to our advanced weapons platforms.”

The Wyoming senators, joined by four others, stated, “It is clear that our dependence on China for vital rare earths threatens our U.S. manufacturing and defense industrial base.” 

Wyoming hosts at least one deposit of these elusive minerals. Proven reserves from past exploratory drilling indicate that if the Bear Lodge project in Crook County were up and running, it could be the nation’s premier domestic source for rare earth elements. Other deposits containing uranium, lithium and helium exist around the mineral-rich state. 

But bringing new mining projects to fruition requires traveling a long, hard road — especially when the financial markets lost enthusiasm for mining decades ago.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in late 2017 calling for greater federal support for exploration and development of these resources, as well as for streamlining onerous permitting processes. The order launched the first stage in taking stock of U.S. critical minerals locations and inventory, the Earth Mapping Resources Initiative, a federal and state project started last year and overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey.

A goal is to produce geologic intelligence to help motivate action by the private sector. 

The U.S. is completely dependent on imports for 21 critical minerals and at least 50% dependent on imports for another 28, according to the USGS.

Well ahead of the federal initiative, the Wyoming Legislature in 2013 tapped the Abandoned Mine Land Fund for the Wyoming State Geological Survey to conduct a study and inventory of critical minerals and rare earth elements. After the list of 35 critical materials was published in the Federal Register, the WSGS reported in 2019 that the state’s “greatest critical-mineral development potential is in uranium, helium, rare earth elements and titanium … There is also potential in vanadium and the platinum group elements.”

But whether these turn into viable economic opportunities for a state long dependent on mineral extraction remains to be seen. 

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