Fledgling Wyoming mine could be continent’s largest, rare earths developer says

The company digging for critical minerals in southeastern Wyoming is becoming more and more confident that it’s found the biggest known deposit of rare earth elements in North America.

American Rare Earths’ mining claims, north of Laramie, started out promising. Since the Australian developer started drilling last year to figure out just how far the rare earths extended, the scope of its find has ballooned.

Its latest round of drilling — further exploration of a fraction of the deposit — revealed that the most in-demand of the 17 rare earth elements are prevalent across an area of roughly four square miles and to depths of nearly 500 feet, the company announced Friday. The findings provide “quantifiable and verifiable evidence that what we have suspected is true,” said Mel Sanderson, American Rare Earths’ president of North America.

“We’re excited, not just because of the size, but because other key variables are falling into place. … We are going to be able to consistently recover high-quality material as deep down as we go,” Sanderson said.

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And, she noted, geologists working on the drilling campaign suspect parts of the deposit descend even deeper. Maybe even twice as far.

Rare earths are ubiquitous. They’re common in the Earth’s crust, and in the array of technologies humans rely on every day. What’s unusual is finding a deposit that’s big enough, and concentrated enough, to mine.

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(Ranie Lynds of the Wyoming State Geological Survey said in an email to the Star-Tribune that the agency is aware of elevated levels of some rare earths in the area, but that it has “no independent way of confirming” the company’s announcement.)

American Rare Earths believes that when it comes to jobs, property taxes and sales taxes (though not severance taxes or royalties — at least for the time being), its project could “potentially step into the void that is being left by the decline of some of our big coal industry producers,” Sanderson said.

“It excites me for Wyoming on a lot of levels,” she said. “On the entire state level, keeping our positioning in terms of an important energy supplier, but also creating jobs that will keep folks well-employed and keep them at home.”

Initially, American Rare Earths figured a mine at its Halleck Creek site might be able to stay open for 20 or 25 years. Now it’s looking at double that — based, Sanderson said, on what the company has been able to confirm so far. Meaning there’s still a possibility that the lifetime of the potential mine could stretch even longer.

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Commercial operations, though, are still a long way off. The company hopes to initiate the permitting process next year. According to Sanderson, under existing laws and regulations, the earliest it could start mining would be in 2029 or 2030, assuming everything goes smoothly along the way.

American Rare Earths also aims to open a processing plant for its ore somewhere in Wyoming. Ideally, Sanderson said, that plant will involve brand-new, less environmentally damaging methods that are still being developed (and kept largely under wraps) by researchers.

And the company will continue studying the extent of the deposit, and refining its vision for the future of the mine, along the way. It’s more optimistic than ever about what it’ll find.

“All mining is a gamble,” Sanderson said. “You have to keep putting money in and keep having faith that your guesses are right. And to reach the point where we have this substantiation that our guesses have been right — it’s hard to describe how huge that is and how exciting it is.”

2023-03-17 23:25:15