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Mine tailings no silver bullets for REE supply

A recent ABC News story suggests that a “modern mother lode” —tailings of old mines containing Rare Earth Elements (REEs) – could yield a potential “rare earth bonanza” as “modern extraction techniques would now permit their recovery.”

However, as MetalMiner’s Stuart Burns points out, the story is missing the point.

Burns argues that while USGS has indeed identified extensive mine tailings that are ready to be processed in a number of places, but the difference maker is refining capability:

“Molycorp’s Mountain Pass facility will be producing 13 of the 17 rare earth elements this year, but its success is not the economic nature of the resource in the ground or principally the mix of elements in the resource. It is the extensive high-technology refining facilities that can turn a 3% compound in the rock into a 100% pure oxide useable by industry. That’s what sets Mountain Pass and the Chinese apart from all these resources in the ground. That’s the barrier to entry for competitors and why most of these resources will never be exploited.”

Meanwhile (as Burns acknowledges), the ABC article does not go as far as to imply the tailings would be a silver bullet for U.S. self-sufficiency, but rightly points to the key factors playing a role here:

“How long it might take the U.S. to become self-sufficient in rare earth elements? That depends, say experts, on the U.S.’s national will and on several bills now pending in Congress–three in the House, one in the Senate–that would expedite U.S. production of these elements. Under current laws and regulations, says Meinert [director of the USGS’s mineral resource program], the average time required to get a new mine permitted (or to rework an old one) tops 10 years. If there’s any public misconception about the U.S.’s ability to solve its rare earth problem, he says, it’s the belief that “Oh, wow, we can do this tomorrow.”

It’s time for policy makers to realize that there are no instant silver bullets and to begin to think strategically about critical minerals.