Gold Rush Alaska: the rare earth boom version

A mining project on a mountain ridge on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island may unlock a motherlode of rare earth resources, which are important components of many of today's electric drive vehicles.

Between the Bokan Mountain deposit, owned by Canada's Ucore Rare Metals, and the nearby city of Ketchikan, Alaska, the potential exists in Alaska to build a lucrative rare earth mining and processing industry, with explorers set to exploit 70 sites identified as "promising" by state geologists. Luisa Moreno, an analyst at Jacob Securities in Toronto, claims rare earths might be Alaska's saving grace:
Alaska has a serious unemployment issue and it is getting worse. Rare earths seem to be their one chance - they really want to capture this opportunity and make it happen.
Nearly all (estimated at 90 percent) of the world's rare earth supply comes from China, where export restrictions frequently lead to soaring prices. That's why Alaskan and Canadian exploration companies want to seize the opportunity to capture a sizable chunk of the industry.

But Alaska' rare earth industry won't form overnight. Ucore estimates it will cost $100 million to get the Alaska mine operating and at least an additional $50 million to construct a rare earth processing facility in Ketchikan. Additionally, it's expected to take up to three years to get permits to extract rare earths from Alaska's virgin land. Alaska's natural resources commissioner, Dan Sullivan, says "It just takes too damn long to permit a mine."

Best-case scenario? Alaska will be pumping out up to 2,300 tons of rare earth metals a year from the Bokan Mountain site by 2015. Worst-case scenario? Alaska's pristine environment will be forever devastated by vast mining operations. Is it worth the risk?

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