A Green Gold Rush Part 3: Why The Sheep Creek Finding Is Good For Montana And The Environment

A Green Gold Rush Part 3: Why The Sheep Creek Finding Is Good For Montana And The Environment

"Montana can potentially develop a responsible and environmentally friendly domestic REE supply chain. All the while, creating an economic boom for Montana."

Many of today’s rare earth element (REE) mines occur in impoverished places where there are few environmental protections and local communities see little benefit. But that doesn’t have to be the case, with the discovery of such high-grade REEs in the Bitterroot Mountains, the environment, Montana’s economy and Montana’s energy abundance plan, could all see serious benefits.

As stated in my last column, China overwhelmingly controls the REE industry with the world’s largest deposit in Inner Mongolia. China consolidated the industry under state control which has only harmed the people and the environment in that region. According to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the clean-up costs for polluted REE mines in one province alone are estimated at $6 billion, even though that region only accounts for 8.6 percent of China’s rare earth production. In the village on the edge of the deposit, Dahlia, the concentration of radioactive thorium in its REE is so high that the village has been nicknamed “cancer village.”   

This stands in stark contrast to the REE discovery in Montana. While other REE mines have seen high radioactive materials, the Sheep Creek’s purported low thorium concentration bodes well for the environment. Thorium is a radioactive material found in conjunction with REE in deposits. As a result, during the mining process, both thorium and REEs are extracted together and require separation during processing. It is during this processing stage that the potential risk of pollution arises. According to US Material Executive Director Harvey Kaye, Sheep Creek’s thorium concentrations are so low that regulations on its disposal are likely unnecessary. Better still, US Critical Materials is working with a government lab to develop a processing method with a nearly benign environmental impact. In my discussion on the potential ecological impact of Sheep Creek mining and processing, U.S. Critical Material Executive Director Edward Cowle stated, “We are going to do it right – we don’t want to go forward if we can’t do it right.” 

But the environment isn’t the only thing that will benefit, Montana is poised to benefit greatly by harnessing this resource. The Sheep Creek deposit alone has an estimated resource value of $43 billion, but there is also the added potential of having REE processing facilities in Montana. US Critical Materials’ Harvey Kaye explained that ideally, “the facility would be relatively close to the [deposit]… where there is infrastructure.” Much of America’s domestic REE supply chain could operate within Montana’s borders. The economic benefits of utilizing Sheep Creek go beyond the mine itself. Businesses that require REEs would likely invest in building facilities in Montana. By becoming one of the major suppliers in America’s REE supply chain, Montana would foster economic growth, and promote technological innovation and sustainable development within the state.

The technological advancement and sustainable development utilizing Sheep Creek’s deposit is critical for Montana’s abundant energy future. The Frontier Institutes’ Energy Strategy outlined Montana’s tremendous energy production potential for wind and solar, both of which require REEs to function. Montana is ranked 5th in potential wind power. Montana could fully utilize the state’s wind power generation potential and produce a tenth of the electricity consumed globally in 2020. For solar, the state’s sunlight (called solar resource) is 26 percent greater than the national average. We could see the state become a major hub in future energy by harnessing Montana’s abundant REE resources and renewable energy potential. 

The benefits of utilizing the Sheep Creek deposit are far reaching. Sheep Creek’s low thorium concentration is crucial, as it reduces environmental risks associated with other REE mines. Unlike REE mining in China, all of this can be done with significantly less impact on the environment. Montana can potentially develop a responsible and environmentally friendly domestic REE supply chain. All the while, creating an economic boom for Montana. Imagine the possibilities – Montana companies could install wind turbines and solar panels built in Montana that utilize REEs extracted and processed in Montana. This could be Montana’s future. Embracing the potential of mining REEs at Sheep Creek while avoiding placing unnecessarily burdensome bureaucratic barriers in the way of permitting its development will bring new economic dynamism to Montana and secure a cleaner environment.

Click here to go to: “A Green Gold Rush Part 1: Why Rare Earth Mining Is Good For America, Montana and The Environment”

Click here to go to: “A Green Gold Rush Part 2: Why Rare Earth Mining Is Good For America”

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