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By Stephen Lee
Lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill, as well as officials in the Trump administration, have begun promoting an old idea that could boost the fossil fuel industry: pulling rare earth minerals out of coal and coal waste.
No commercial-grade technology exists for doing that, but plenty of groups are working on it. And a breakthrough could deliver a new set of customers to companies like Peabody Energy Corp., Cloud Peak Energy Inc., and Arch Coal Inc.
Seventeen elements compose the category of rare earth minerals, including neodymium, lanthanum, and cerium. Rare earths are used to build everything from smartphones to guided missiles.
On Dec. 5, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) bill (S. 1563) that would authorize $20 million a year for the Energy Department for research into ways of separating rare earth minerals from coal.
Last year, Congress granted Energy $15 million for that research.
Manchin is “still talking to his colleagues and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to move the bill forward,” Katey McCutcheon, a Manchin staffer, told Bloomberg Environment.
But the bill’s prospects appear good because it would serve at least three constituencies: coal companies, because it could increase coal demand; coal state voters as it promises mining and manufacturing jobs; and environmentalists because it could mean polluted lands will be cleaned up.
The environmental angle could mollify those who worry that rare earth element research will lead to more mining. For example, at West Virginia University, researchers are trying to find ways to drain rare earth elements from already-polluted waterways.
The promise of rare earth mineral extraction is “another reason why the ‘keep it in the ground’ movement is a ‘head in the sand’ movement,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.
Policy emphasis should be on technological innovations that make natural resources more useful, rather than prohibitions that foreclose further applications of the resources, he said.
Not everyone supports the idea of rare earth research, however. Bob Kincaid, president of the anti-mountaintop-removal group Coal River Mountain Watch of Naoma, W.Va., dismissed Manchin’s measure as little more than an overture to Big Coal.
“This is just another data point on a long continuum of Manchin trying to figure out other things we can do with coal,” Kincaid told Bloomberg Environment. “He’s going to burn it into natural gas, into everything but Frisbees and wheat jacks. If he could get us to sprinkle it on our corn flakes, he would.”
Republicans argue the U.S. also must develop its own source of rare earths to protect homeland security. The nation has no domestic supply of rare earths and imports 84 percent of its elements from China, Undersecretary Mark Menezes, the third-highest–ranking official at the Energy Department, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Dec. 5.
House Republicans underscored that point in their recent hearing, during which Defense Department and U.S. Geological Survey officials said they were concerned about foreign dependence on rare earths.
The nation should have its own supplies of strategically important minerals, including substances like uranium, Ronnie Favors, administrator of the Defense Logistics Agency’s Strategic Materials group, told the House Natural Resources Committee Dec. 12.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration sent signs of support in November, when the Energy Department heralded the discovery of high levels of rare earth elements not only in Appalachia, where they already were known to exist, but also in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming—which provides nearly half the nation’s coal—and Illinois.
Rare earths at concentration levels of 300 parts per million previously had not been clearly identified in Wyoming and Illinois, Paul Ziemkiewicz, who heads up West Virginia University’s rare earth research program, told Bloomberg Environment.
The 300 ppm level is important because “a lot of the ore sources around the world that are competing with us right now are in that range,” he said.
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