Policy Documents

Dig It! Rare Earth and Uranium Mining Potential in the States

Tom Tanton –
December 13, 2012

When thinking about the mining industry, one would probably picture a coal mine in West Virginia, maybe an ore mine in the Mesabi Iron Range, or perhaps even a gold mine somewhere in the American west.

What might not come immediately to mind, however, are mines that recover uranium and other rare earth oxides (REO) such as yttrium, cerium, dysprosium, and gadolinium.  While the average American may have never heard of these elements, they are probably more familiar with many of the products these elements are commonly used in: LED televisions, catalytic converters, x-rays, and even lasers.  Comprised of seventeen chemical elements on the periodic table, REO are incredibly important for making our lives healthier and more enjoyable.  Uranium, of course, is probably most well-known for fueling nuclear power plants.

A recently released report titled Dig It!: Rare Earth and Uranium Mining Potential in States and published by the American Legislative Exchange Council, tackles the issue of uranium and rare earth mining and makes the case for mining regulatory reform.

The report reveals that despite vast reserves of uranium and rare earths across the country, we have become increasingly dependent on foreign sources to satisfy our needs – we currently import 92% of our uranium and 96% of our REO from foreign lands to satisfy our needs.  An industry with great potential for job creation and economic revitalization remains largely untapped with overly onerous regulatory burdens, unsurprisingly, being the primary roadblock.

The initial regulatory hurdle that must be overcome is obtaining the necessary permits and approvals required for building a mine.  In the United States, the average wait time is seven years which is among the longest average approval processes across the 25 mineral producing countries in the world.  In Australia, on the other hand, a country very similar to ours politically and culturally, it takes a mere two years.  Basic logic would suggest that the United States would be one of the last placing mining companies would go to start a new project.

In some instances, states have even gone beyond mere regulations and have imposed outright bans on certain types of mining.  In Virginia, for example, there is currently a moratorium on uranium mining.  Uranium mining is one of the most highly regulated industries in the United States and if Virginia were to lift the moratorium, no fewer than eight different state and federal agencies would be responsible for overseeing and ensuring the safety of the industry.  Currently, periodic inspections are  conducted by these entities in states with existing mines to ensure the mining facility is up to par with management organization, emergency preparedness, fire safety, and most importantly, environmental protection.  Virginia would be no different.

Today, uranium mining exists in Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and in a handful of other states in the west.  These states are friendly to the mining industry by having reasonable regulations that have successfully prevented any major environmental problems from arising.  These states also take advantage of the many benefits afforded to states that welcome mining within their borders, namely increased economic development, job growth, and tax revenues.  Research suggests that by implementing a de facto ban on uranium mining, Virginia is missing out on $7 billion worth of economic development, an increase in person-year employment by 1,900 per year, and $500 million of tax revenue.

As the mining industry grows safer daily with constant technological advancements, the federal government and each of the states with proven mineral deposits must revisit their current mining policies.  It is important that the United States takes advantage of the current cutting-edge technology afforded to us and stay competitive in the mining industry as it means jobs, economic development and less import reliance on resources that affect our daily lives.