Thirty-five minerals made the Department of Interior’s draft list of “critical minerals,” including three mineral commodities — barite, lithium and magnesium — actively produced in Nevada.
“We’re blessed in Nevada with several of those mineral commodities that are important,” said Rich Perry, Nevada Division of Minerals administrator.
The recently published draft list comes after President Donald Trump issued an executive order Dec. 30 that aims to reduce the country’s vulnerability to disruption of mineral supplies by identifying critical minerals and new sources.
Teams from the U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Land Management developed an unranked list of 35 critical minerals, and the DOI published the notice of the draft minerals list Feb. 16. (See sidebar for the complete draft list.)
“It’s very timely and long overdue to look at that because we [in the U.S.] continue to be net importers,” Perry said. “We’re becoming more reliant on critical elements.”
Critical minerals are defined as nonfuel minerals essential to U.S. economic and national security, with vulnerable supply chains, that serve an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, according to the executive order.
“Despite the presence of significant deposits of some of these minerals across the United States, our miners and producers are currently limited by a lack of comprehensive, machine-readable data concerning topographical, geological, and geophysical surveys; permitting delays; and the potential for protracted litigation regarding permits that are issued,” the order states.
In 2017, imports made up more than half of nonfuel mineral commodities, and the U.S. was completely reliant on 21 of those, according to the USGS Mineral Commodities Summary for 2018. Last year, China and Canada were the top sources of nonfuel mineral commodities for the U.S., followed by Brazil, Russia and South Africa, the USGS reports.
Nevada produces 20 metals and minerals, representing more than 11 percent of the nation’s mineral production, according to the Nevada Mining Association. The industry adds billions of dollars to the U.S. trade ledger, the association reports, while creating jobs and stimulating the economy.
The NvMA stated that all of Nevada’s minerals could be considered critical and is wary of too narrow a definition and the unintended consequences of the draft list. The association plans to submit public comments on the draft list by the March 19 filing deadline but provided a separate statement to the Elko Daily Free Press.
“Dubbing some minerals as ‘critical’ insinuates that others are not,” the NvMA said. “Rather than trying to rank one mineral ahead of another, the administration should embrace policies that boost domestic exploration and production of all minerals. The Nevada Mining Association encourages the Department of Interior to reconsider this proposed list and carefully contemplate the unintended consequences that may result in the years ahead.”
Of the 20 metals and minerals produced in Nevada in 2016, three are on the critical minerals draft list: barite, lithium and magnesium, according to the Nevada Division of Minerals.
Barite is used as an oil and gas drilling fluid and is deemed important to the energy, telecommunications and electronics sectors, according to the DOI and USGS summary of methodology and background information. China is the top producer and supplier of the world’s barite.
Most of the barite production in the U.S. came from four mines in Nevada in 2016, Perry said, with three companies in the Battle Mountain area in 2016 and one in Elko. The 2018 report states that domestic mine production of barite decreased in 2017. Production tends to mirror the ebb and flow of the oil industry.
The USGS reports that there are an estimated 150 million tons of identified barite resources in the U.S.
Lithium — produced mostly in Australia and supplied by China — is relevant to the aerospace, defense, energy, telecommunications and electronics, and transportation industries sectors, the draft list summary states. Notable applications include use in rechargeable batteries, and the demand for energy storage solutions is growing.
The only U.S. lithium production came from Nevada, the USGS reports in its 2018 mineral commodity summary. The Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology identifies Albemarle Corp.’s Silver Peak Operations in Esmerelda County as an active lithium producer in 2017. Perry said the company’s output totals only 2 percent of world production, which is only half of Tesla’s projected need once its gigafactory is in full operation.
Because of growing demand for lithium in the energy-storage sector, interest in mining lithium has increased. Nevada had about 12,000 placer claims for lithium at Perry’s last count.
U.S. reserves of lithium are estimated at 35,000 tons, the USGS reports.
Magnesium is used in the aerospace, defense, energy, telecommunications and electronics, and transportation industries, the summary shows, and it is produced and supplied mostly by China.
The 2018 USGS mineral commodity summary for magnesium reports that about 60 percent of magnesium compounds consumed in the U.S. goes into agricultural, chemical, construction, environmental and industrial applications. In 2017, Premier Magnesia ran Nevada’s only magnesium mine near Gabbs, according to the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology preliminary draft map. Premier Magnesia is also the state’s longest continuously running mine since 1941.
Additional listed nonfuel minerals have been produced commercially in the state throughout its history, Perry said. Antimony, arsenic, fluorspar, potash tungsten and uranium are among the resources that have been mined in Nevada, and many other industrial minerals not on the critical list originate in the state.
“Some of these have been produced in Nevada in the past, and there are resources available in the state but apparently not at a level that they are being exported.”
Resources that are available in Nevada but not being mined in the state include cobalt and tin, Perry said, suggesting that if domestic production were incentivized, and market supply and demand favorable that “we could very well see a boom for some of these things on this list that have not been explored for before.”
The nation’s needs for industrial mineral will change over time, Perry said, reflecting on the recent rise in popularity of materials needed to manufacture devices such as cellphones and batteries. While discussing the critical minerals of the future, he said it is important to keep public lands open to multiple uses, including mining, so that the nation has access to its domestic resources if and when the time comes.
“We want to make sure that the land in our state that is under federal government management remains open for locating claims — essentially that it stays as multiple use to stake claims and explore,” Perry said.
Creating the list is a step toward the federal government’s policy to reduce the nation’s vulnerability to supply disruptions. The executive order also directs that new sources of critical minerals be identified; activities at all levels of the supply chain be increased; advanced electronic access of data be available; and leasing and permitting be streamlined.
“An increase in private-sector domestic exploration, production, recycling, and reprocessing of critical minerals, and support for efforts to identify more commonly available technological alternatives to these minerals, will reduce our dependence on imports, preserve our leadership in technological innovation, support job creation, improve our national security and balance of trade, and enhance the technological superiority and readiness of our Armed Forces, which are among the Nation’s most significant consumers of critical minerals,” the executive order says.
Despite its leaders’ concerns with the definition and draft list, the NvMA applauded the Trump administration’s efforts to streamline the mineral permitting process and increase domestic sources of minerals.