Accessing Alaska’s Untapped Critical Minerals

Posted on October 04, 2011 by Minerals Make Life

Hundreds of political leaders, mining officials and executives, geologists, and national security experts converged at Alaska’s Strategic and Critical Minerals Summit in Fairbanks on Sept. 30 to examine the benefits of—and challenges to—accessing the state’s untapped critical minerals resources.

Critical minerals are those that are subject to possible supply restrictions, but necessary to sectors such as energy, defense and manufacturing. Among those considered critical are rare earth elements—minerals that were largely the focus of the summit.

Currently, the United States relies on China for more than 90 percent of its rare earths consumption—a statistic China is leveraging to its strategic advantage. But according to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are approximately 13 million metric tons of rare earths within known U.S. deposits, and many of the deposits are located in Alaska. In fact, with exploration companies standing ready to develop approximately 70 promising sites that have been identified by state geologists, Reuters reported that Alaska could soon be “the Silicon Valley of rare earths.”

In addition to helping the United States break its dependence on foreign minerals, increased production in Alaska would bring “needed jobs and opportunity to the state” and offer “a secure supply of the strategic metals for the high-tech sector,” according to Reuters.

But there are a number of obstacles to growth in the minerals sector, and the summit offered an opportunity to deliberate policy actions that would address hurdles such as the outdated mining permitting process, which deters investment in new projects because of its excessive length.

A more efficient permitting process is just one of the prescriptions in Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) Critical Minerals Policy Act, which she introduced to Congress in May in an effort to revitalize the United States’ critical minerals supply chain and reduce the nation’s growing dependence on foreign suppliers. Her bill also proposes a formal assessment of the nation’s mineral resources, a project Alaska has already begun implementing on a state level:

The state has launched a three-year, $500,000 land-assessment project to determine where rare-earth elements may exist. The USGS also has a vast repository of mineral samples waiting to be tested for rare elements but is waiting for funding for that project. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

As Alaska moves toward increased mineral development and all its inherent benefits, the United States should follow suit and take steps to decrease its dependence on foreign suppliers while supporting economic growth and job creation nationwide.

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