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Nebraska Rare Earth mining project could break U.S. dependence

Making national headlines this week, the Elk Creek, Neb. rare earths and niobium prospecting site (we’ve talked about it here and here) may finally be getting the attention it deserves.  The Northwest Mining Association also recently covered this topic on their blog at TheMoreYouDig.com.  With all of this newfound attention, however, comes the larger issue of domestic non-fuel mineral resource development.

As the Washington Times reported, preliminary results from test drilling came in with promising results last week, and increase the likelihood of Quantum Rare Earth Development Corp.’s prospecting site becoming the first rare earths mining operation in the U.S. since 2002, when California’s Mountain Pass Mine was shut down.

Despite the U.S. holding roughly 13 million metric tons of REEs beneath its soil, according to the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, China has since become the predominant rare earths owner. The nation’s stockpile accounts for roughly 97% of the world’s output.

The current rare earths shortage, a result of China having tightened its export restrictions in recent months, has downstream industries that rely heavily on these strategic minerals reeling, with GE Lighting being only one end user sounding the alarm.

In large part, the United States’ unnecessary and potentially dangerous dependency on foreign mineral resources, which is not limited to rare earths, is home-made, and must be attributed to the difficulty of obtaining mining permits.  According to National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston:

One of the key problems that investors tell us about is that the permitting regime in this country is so complicated and time-consuming that it has hurt investments here in the United States.

In fact, in the Behre Dolbear Group’s 2011 Ranking of Countries for Mining Investment or “Where Not to Invest,” the U.S. is tied with Papua New Guinea for the dubious honor of having the longest approval process for mining permits among the top 25 mining countries in the world.

With the next round of the debt debate pushed off into November, lawmakers would be well-advised to use the interim to focus their attention on “America’s looming resource deficit,” which legislation approved by the House Committee on Natural Resources aimed at facilitating domestic resource development would begin to address.

Hopefully page six of the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries tops lawmakers’ summer reading list during the Congressional recess.