The federal government has approved an Arkansas company’s plans to drill for rare earth minerals along the Idaho border in Western Montana.
U.S. Rare Earths said Thursday that it will begin core sample drilling in the Sheep Creek area on Lemhi Pass in May. Rare earth minerals are key ingredients in advanced electronics like cellphones, wind turbines and hybrid car batteries. Of the 14 minerals in the category, nine are used in cellphones.
They’re also heavily used by the defense industry. China produces nearly all of the rare earth minerals used in manufacturing, with U.S. mines producing roughly 1 percent of supply.
“They’re crucial to solar and wind and electronic vehicle batteries,” said Dan McGroarty, Rare Earths president. “The big story is, right now 95 percent of the rare earths are coming out of China, and manufacturing in the United States depends on it.”
In 2010, China limited exports of rare earth minerals in retaliation for Japan’s claim to islands in the South China Sea.
That cut in supply prompted complaints to the World Trade Organization by the United States and other countries that also complained that by not exporting rare earth minerals, China was encouraging companies to relocate there.
After the 2010 dustup, interest in developing U.S. sources for rare earth minerals increased. The only active source for rare earth minerals in the United States is a Mountain Pass, Calif., mine operated by Molycorp, a Colorado company.
The minerals aren’t difficult to find, but they are hard to find in concentrations high enough to be worth mining. The minerals are usually surface mined. If Rare Earths’ drilling samples reveal pay dirt, the company will follow up by drilling numerous other samples in a grid formation to determine the size of the resource.
McGroarty said Rare Earths is the doing the same work on the Idaho side of the border.
What attracted the company to the area were the meticulous records of geologists indexing minerals of all kinds while exploring for precious metals, which were first mined in the region more than a century ago.
“It’s such a promising site,” McGroarty said. “The geology over eons has basically tipped up in a way that what it’s done is expose layers that would have been far below the surface.”
The initial drilling crew will consist of a couple of geologists and a handful of drilling experts.