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Rare earth elements lure mining companies to the Mountain West

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News brief: 

Rare earth elements are a set of 17 silvery white metals with names mostly unknown to the general public, like neodymium and gadolinium. But the mining industry is spending millions of dollars looking for deposits throughout the Mountain West.

That’s because rare earth elements are used in a lot of emerging industries, including the making of cell phones, wind turbines and electric vehicles. China currently dominates the market. Travis Deti with the Wyoming Mining Association recently touted to state legislators the importance of growing America’s supply. One report estimates that the global rare earth minerals market could nearly double by 2028.

“The train is leaving the station, and we need to be on it,” he said. “When you have companies on the ground, you have jobs. You're generating revenue.”

Contrary to their name, rare earth elements are fairly common across the Mountain West. One company is exploring projects in Nevada, Arizona and Wyoming. According to Deti, states will be in competition with each other over the next few years as they try to make themselves more attractive to industry interests.

“We’ve got a lot of stuff in the ground, and we need to expand our mining operations,” he told Wyoming lawmakers. “This is the opportunity to bring in that new sector.”

Like traditional hardrock mining, mining other so-called “green metals” with uses in renewable energy projects comes with consequences. In Idaho, one cobalt mine has created concern over potential air and water pollution, and a similar fight is also playing out over a lithium mine in Nevada. Neither of those metals are rare earths, however, they’ll play a similar role in conversations about the future of renewable energy infrastructure in the Mountain West.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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