Rare Earths Mining Potential in the United States

Studies | Environment

No. 348
Wednesday, April 03, 2013
by Tom Tanton

Executive Summary

Rare earths and rare earth mining are crucial to modern life. Rare earths are elements found underground that mix diffusely with other minerals.  They provide critical components of a wide array of products from iPhones to computers, medical CAT scans, defense equipment, wind turbines and more. The United States depends on other countries, some of which are not very friendly, for these elements. America currently imports over 96 percent of its rare earths, adding to the trade imbalance. However, domestic production of rare earths can be expanded, adding jobs to the economy and revenues to state budgets.

The key to these opportunities lies with reforms to mine permitting. Obtaining the permits and approvals required to build a mine in the United States takes an average of seven years — among the longest wait times in the world. Both state and federal regulations contribute to delays.  For example:

  • The Mountain Pass mine in California, once the world’s main source for rare earth metals, closed from 2002 to 2012, even though the required Environmental Impact Statement was completed in 2004. 
  • Augusta Resource Corp.’s Rosemont copper mine has faced delays from the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Historic Preservation Office, American Indian tribes and the Center for Biological Diversity.
  • Finally, Rare Element, the owner of Wyoming’s Bear Lodge Project in Wyoming, has an exploration permit to expand their test drill programs on up to 200 acres; but the company faces at least three more years until final federal permits are issued.

Thus, despite a vast underground store of raw materials, the United States is one of the least desirable countries in which to begin a new mining project.

Economic and strategic military considerations will require new mine development in the next few years. U.S. safety and performance efforts excel in the global marketplace. Thus, as processing and mining methods become more sophisticated, and exploration activities increase, technology-driven environmental improvements should alleviate the concerns of the public. Federal and state governments should also take such advances into account by revising mine safety legislation.


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