A Green Gold Rush Part 1: Why Rare Earth Mining Is Good For America, Montana and The Environment
"Currently, the beneficiaries of those who discover, extract and process REEs are reserved to the far corners of the globe. But a recent discovery in Montana could change that."
We are in the midst of a 21st-century gold rush, but unlike previous iterations, this gold rush is searching for something even harder to find: Rare earth elements (REEs). Currently, the beneficiaries of those who discover, extract and process REEs are reserved to the far corners of the globe. But a recent discovery in Montana could change that. The discovery of REEs at Sheep Creek in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains is great news for America, Montana and the environment.
REEs are a set of seventeen elements that share similar chemical and physical properties. REEs have unique magnetic, luminescent and catalytic properties, making them essential components for many modern technologies, including more than 200 high-tech products. Green technologies like wind turbines and electric vehicles depend heavily on REEs. But it’s not just green technologies or cutting-edge defense equipment, like the F-35 fighter jet, that rely on REEs. Your phone, TV and laptop also require these elements to work. Basic, everyday actions, like reading these sentences on your screen, require REEs. This is precisely why this discovery at Sheep Creek is so important.
In February, the Utah-based company US Critical Materials announced it discovered REE samples with grades exceeding any other domestic source at their Sheep Creek property. “REE grade” refers to the concentration of REEs in a geological deposit or ore body. It is typically expressed as the percentage of the total rock that is made up of the elements. REE grade is essential in evaluating potential mining projects, as it affects the cost and feasibility of extracting and processing the elements. The higher the deposit’s grade, the more economically attractive.
Such a discovery makes sense considering the history and recent investments in the area. The US Geological Survey (USGS) and Montana’s Bureau of Mines and Geology have conducted surveys on the Sheep Creek REE deposit since the 1950s, with further fieldwork in the 1980s. The USGS is planning another survey this summer. According to Montana Public Radio’s John Hooks, geologists and mining experts do not contest the US Critical Material’s findings, though they say further exploration is needed. In its discovery, US Critical Materials found that the deposit contains thirteen of the most essential REEs needed for high-tech products and could help establish a domestic supply chain. Better still, the discovery shows that Sheep Creek has low “waste” mineral levels that must be removed during extraction. This discovery means Sheep Creek could be incredibly efficient for extracting and processing REEs with potentially less environmental risk than other active sites.
If the deposit’s estimated value is true, it will have serious implications for America’s domestic economy, which has struggled to develop an REE source not subject to the whims of potentially hostile nations. Importantly, the finding could reduce costs for American manufacturers using REEs, while countering the unfair trade practices of the world’s current REE leader: China.
But it isn’t just America which could see major benefits, both Montana and the environment are positioned to be potential beneficiaries. By mining for REEs in a location with greater checks and balances, rather than a totalitarian nation with a track record of being one of the world’s biggest polluters, the environment will no doubt be better off. That’s not to mention the potential economic benefits Montana would receive from the mine and the resources it could provide in helping diversify Montana’s energy portfolio.
Regardless of how you look at it, the Sheep Creek discovery is welcome news. Stay tuned for my next two columns as I unpack how these findings will impact America, Montana and the environment.
Click here to go to: “A Green Gold Rush Part 2: Why Rare Earth Mining Is Good For America”
Click here to go to: “A Green Gold Rush Part 3: Why The Sheep Creek Finding Is Good For Montana And The Environment”