What We Need Means We Need Mining
As Americans, we are fortunate to live in a society where we generally have access to important technology for medical care, transportation, communication devices, and more. Many Americans would have difficulty conceptualizing a world in which that access does not exist. Would you be willing to wait for years for technological devices like the latest version of your favorite cellphone or an MRI machine due to lack of supply? What about not being able to buy the latest, lightweight tablet or computer but instead going back to one that is bigger and bulkier? These things seem inconvenient, but what if as a nation we could not develop or maintain our defense systems or achieve our carbon reduction goals because we don’t have the materials essential for the necessary high-tech applications, such as fighter jets, electric vehicles and wind turbines? These are all real risks represented by China’s dominance of the rare earth (RE) supply chain. With over 85% of the refined REs and 90% of the downstream products being produced in China in 2022, there are currently no alternative sources available today that are secure and mined with sound environmental practices.
In order to remain a strong nation, the United States has to embrace mining of not only REs but other critical minerals. Where else are the elements essential to our modern lifestyle going to come from on a consistent and reliable basis? Also why shift our environmental burdens elsewhere when we have arguably the most protective regulatory oversight of any nation? Wait – before you say, “anywhere else,” let us talk about the risks that poses to our economic and national security and the world as a whole.
There is an old saying that “if you can’t grow it, you have to mine it.” Let us start by agreeing that modern life depends on mining. Your mobile phone, computer, appliances, and car are smaller and more efficient because of REs’ special properties. Then let us talk about our forefathers. They understood that a strong nation was dependent on mining, and they developed land management policies that included the right to develop mineral assets found on public lands. These policies have not been taken lightly. Knowing proper oversight was necessary to develop mineral assets sustainably, public land management agencies like the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management were established.
Fast forward to today. The view of “anywhere else” has driven most mining out of the US, which has resulted in our reliance on mineral imports from other countries. This has compromised not only our economic health but our national security. High-tech industries accounted for 12% of our total employment and 23% of our output in 2021. What happens if the US is denied access to rare earth exports for one reason or another? Chip makers are right now trying to assess the economic impact of China’s recent export ban on gallium and germanium. The economic implications of rare earth restrictions or stoppage would be substantial and could take years to recover from. What about the many defense applications for REs? Are you comfortable being mostly, or in some cases completely dependent, on the import of key materials for our communication systems, fighter jets, and other defense technologies?
But let us go to one of my biggest concerns. “Anywhere else” means mining is done in countries with insufficient environmental regulations and protections. As an environmental engineer, I find this troubling. China’s dominance in the RE market has been in part supported by their minimalistic environmental regulations. If we believe in the concept of environmental protection, why can we not open our minds and hearts to look at mining with a broader perspective? Doesn’t it make sense that mining be done in countries with practical regulations and oversight to limit the global environmental impacts?
Innovation in the form of our proprietary rare earth processing and separation technology has the ability to move the RE industry forward in a significant way. The system we have designed will minimize waste streams, making it much more attractive environmentally than existing technology, while improving the economics of recovery. This will help make US products more competitive. But innovation is driven by economics. For companies to spend the type of R&D dollars we are investing, economic recovery must be possible and that means advancing the Bear Lodge Rare Earth Project into development. This will provide mining sector employment and bring economic diversity to Wyoming. It will also help to address both the economic and national security issues related to REs. Most importantly, it will be developed responsibly, paying the utmost attention to the environment.
Jobs, industrial diversification, economic and national security, and responsible development – all these factors suggest that we need mining and that includes development of the Bear Lodge Project.
Time to Change a Broken System
Jun 12, 2023
Great news. On June 2, 2023, Congress took a major step in addressing the issues surrounding the permitting process for mining projects in the U.S. The permitting reforms that were approved could provide resource development companies like ours more confidence in the federal permitting process and most importantly, a defined timeline.
A growing awareness of the dangers of reliance on China, Russia and other unpredictable and unreliable nations for critical minerals and materials was the driving concern behind these reforms. While both the Biden and Trump administrations acknowledged the risk this dependence represents to national security, they had yet to take any meaningful action to help address the permitting process issues that were hindering any near-term solutions. Until these measures were approved, we were all subject to an antiquated system that was neither effective nor efficient and resulted in commonly experienced lengthy delays and expensive and unreasonable demands. Fortunately, that is changing.
While the U.S. can be a source for many of the critical minerals essential to advanced and green technologies – Bear Lodge in the case of rare earths – companies like ours face a federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process that can routinely take seven to 10 years or more. Complicating this lengthy process was the ability of the oversight agencies to conduct overly broad and imprecise analysis as part of the process. The reform sets limits for both the time and scope of the review process without diminishing the protections provided under NEPA.
There were three major components to the reform. First, it imposes timelines for new project reviews. An Environmental Assessment (EA) is expected to now take one year, and an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will now take two years. It also provides companies with recourse if the work is not completed by the federal agency in a timely manner. Second, it has a provision for companies to prepare and submit their own EAs or EISs. All the same work would be done but completed by the proponent company and then submitted to the oversight agency for review. In areas where several projects are being permitted and agency resources are limited, this will save considerable time in the process. Lastly, the reforms put in some limitations on the concept of “reasonably foreseeable” when applied to the impacts of a project. This should help keep reviews focused on a more reasonable spectrum of potential impacts.
These changes will allow companies like ours to have a better expectation of the process and reduce significant costs resulting from lengthy delays. Most importantly, it will help bring the production of these essential minerals to the nearer term, lessening our country’s dependence on others and assuring we continue to be a leader in evolving technology. While more work on mine permitting reform needs to be done, this is a great start.