Tuesday 18th June 2019

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U.S. critical minerals strategy includes Canada and other allies

June 5th, 2019

by Greg Klein | June 5, 2019

The country’s tariff tactics might present an image of Fortress America battling its adversaries, but a new critical minerals strategy advocates greater co-operation between the U.S. and its friends. The manifestation of Washington’s growing concern about securing resources and building supply chains, a federal report released June 4 announces six calls to action, 24 goals and 61 recommendations accompanied by timelines for accomplishment.

The U.S. includes Canada and other allies in its critical minerals strategy

Clearly, the Donald Trump administration recognizes the problem of relying on potentially unreliable sources, especially when they’re economic and geopolitical rivals: “If China or Russia were to stop exports to the United States and its allies for a prolonged period—similar to China’s rare earths embargo in 2010—an extended supply disruption could cause significant shocks throughout U.S. and foreign critical mineral supply chains.”

Rare earths provide an especially stark example of the problem, the report emphasizes. “The REE industry has experienced downsizing, business failure, and relocation in all phases of the supply chain, including mining, separation, metal reduction, alloying and downstream manufacturing of advanced technology products such as high performance rare earth permanent magnets.”

The report, A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals, follows a number of American initiatives including the formal classification of 35 critical minerals and a Secretary of Defense study released last September.

For 31 of the 35 critical minerals, the U.S. imports over 50% of its supply. For 14 of them, imports account for 100% of supply, creating “a strategic vulnerability for both our economy and our military with respect to adverse foreign government actions, natural disasters, and other events that could disrupt supply.”

If China or Russia were to stop exports to the United States and its allies for a prolonged period—similar to China’s rare earths embargo in 2010—an extended supply disruption could cause significant shocks throughout U.S. and foreign critical mineral supply chains.

Apart from finding new deposits, the report calls for specific measures to encourage R&D, new supply chains, additional and publicly available exploration data, land access and permitting, a workforce with appropriate skills and expertise, as well as international trade and co-operation.

On the latter topic, the report notes significant American reliance on Canada and Mexico for many essentials. “Working with them to develop their critical mineral deposits can help improve the security of U.S. supply.”

Washington’s agenda also calls for expanded collaboration with Canada, Australia, the EU, Japan and South Korea on a range of issues, from finding and developing resources to creating supply chains.

Although the U.S. began addressing the issue early in Trump’s administration, the report’s timing coincides with fears that another Chinese rare earths embargo could happen imminently. The U.S. relies on China directly for 80% of its imports, while much of the remainder comes from China indirectly. America’s sole REE mine, Mountain Pass in California, exports all its production to China.

That leaves Western Australian miner Lynas Corp as the only major producer outside China that is, as CEO/managing director Amanda Lacaze stated, “focused on rest-of-the-world markets, that is non-Chinese markets.” Although her company faces tremendous challenges meeting Malaysian government demands for its processing facility in that country, the government has made mildly conciliatory statements in advance of a June 20 meeting with Lynas.

Senkaku revisited

May 29th, 2019

China-U.S. trade tactics highlight rare earths peril and potential

by Greg Klein | May 29, 2019

China-U.S. trade tactics highlight rare earths peril and potential

 

They’re vital to several categories of modern essentials including military defence. But rare earths have themselves become weapons in an escalating conflict between China and the U.S. Despite Washington’s heightened awareness of its critical minerals conundrum, the U.S., like the rest of the non-Chinese world, remains almost completely dependent on its rival-turned-enemy for the rare earths that China threatens to cut off.

Among recent hints, comments and implied threats was last week’s well-publicized visit to a Chinese RE plant by President Xi Jinping and his top trade negotiator, where the leader reportedly steeled his country’s resolve with talk of an impending “Long March.” Additionally significant and non-cryptic code came in a May 29 admonition from the state-run People’s Daily: “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

China-U.S. trade tactics highlight rare earths peril and potential

Northern Minerals’ Browns Range pilot plant readies
a Western Australia project for Chinese customers.

If a full-blown trade war’s imminent, it’s not without irony. In a change of plans the U.S. has dropped rare earths from a long list of tariff-attached imports, tacitly acknowledging its dependency on China. China did the opposite, increasing its tariff from 10% to 25% on RE imports from America, a small portion of China’s supply but nevertheless an increase to the cost of its trade war weaponry.

The 17 elements comprise essential components for a host of modern necessities including phones, computers and other communications and electronic devices, electric vehicles, batteries, renewable energy and military defence.

China already mines over 70% of global supply, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Geological Survey, and that doesn’t include illegal Chinese production. The U.S. relies on China for 80% of RE compounds and metals. America imports another 11% from Estonia, France and Japan, but that stuff’s “derived from mineral concentrates and chemical intermediates produced in China and elsewhere,” the USGS added.

The risks of an all-out trade war might be demonstrated by the 2010 East China Sea conflict, where China and Japan both claim the islands of Senkaku. When a Chinese fishing boat captain felt emboldened to twice ram a Japanese naval vessel, Japan arrested him. Within days, China banned all rare earths exports to Japan, crippling its globally important but RE-dependent manufacturers. China also imposed heavy cutbacks and duties on exports to other countries.

China-U.S. trade tactics highlight rare earths peril and potential

A Greenland Minerals MOU would commit the
proposed Kvanefjeld mine’s total RE production to China.

Desperate for RE supply, some non-Chinese manufacturers relocated to China. Meanwhile Western resource companies strove to develop alternative supplies. By 2013 two new mines reached production, Lynas Corp’s Mount Weld in Western Australia and Molycorp’s Mountain Pass in California. The following year the World Trade Organization ordered China to drop its export restrictions on rare earths, as well as tungsten and molybdenum.

China complied with a vengeance, flooding the world with cheap RE supply. America’s WTO victory proved Pyrrhic as a burgeoning non-Chinese supply chain failed to compete. The most salient casualty was Mountain Pass, which suspended operations during 2015 bankruptcy proceedings.

The mine resumed production in early 2018 under new owner MP Materials. But with China’s Shenghe Rare Earth Company a minority shareholder, North America’s only RE producer exports its entire output to China.

Lynas, meanwhile, remains committed to serving non-Chinese markets through a non-Chinese supply chain. But skeptics might consider the company’s strategy precarious. Plans announced last week include a refinery in Texas that’s merely at the MOU stage, an AU$500-million financing commitment that appears inadequate to the company’s needs and an unconvincing proposal to meet a Malaysian ultimatum with alternative ideas.

Home to Lynas’ refining and separation facility, Malaysia insists the company remove over 450,000 tonnes of radioactive waste by September or face a shutdown. The country also wants future Mount Weld material rendered non-radioactive prior to arrival. (Update: On May 30 Malaysia’s prime minister said the government will likely allow Lynas’ plant to continue operation, according to Reuters.)

China-U.S. trade tactics highlight rare earths peril and potential

At a northern Quebec rare earths deposit, Commerce
Resources’ Ashram project moves towards pre-feasibility.

An AU$1.5-billion takeover bid from deep-pocketed giant Wesfarmers might offer a made-in-Australia solution. But Lynas has so far held itself aloof.

The CEO’s commitment to non-Chinese markets, however, differs from some other Australian companies. ASX-listed Northern Minerals, self-described as “the first and only meaningful producer of dysprosium outside of China,” has committed the total production of its Western Australia Browns Range project to China, apparently at the behest of minority shareholder Huatai Mining. Last August ASX-listed Greenland Minerals signed an offtake MOU with majority shareholder Shenghe Resources, which would give China the proposed Kvanefjeld mine’s total RE production.

Technology metals expert Jack Lifton emphasizes the need for non-Chinese resources and expertise: “If we don’t reconstitute a total American supply chain, if the Europeans don’t do the same, for the critical materials like rare earths, cobalt, lithium, we’re going to be out of luck,” he told ResourceClips.com.

Heightened awareness in Washington led to 35 minerals getting a formal “critical” classification, a prelude to last year’s Secretary of Defense study calling for government initiatives to encourage domestic supply chains. More recently, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators proposed legislation to prod the country into action.

That approach rankles those who prefer laissez-faire solutions. Moreover government meddling in the form of trade wars can backfire, libertarians believe. As Rick Rule said last week, “If the Chinese decided to obviate their competitive advantage with some stupid political ploy, they would find themselves with a much smaller proportion of the global market.”

Many investors seem to have agreed. Following China’s May 29 rhetoric, stock prices surged for advanced-stage RE projects.

Turbulent times for Lynas

May 17th, 2019

Rare earths provide a cautionary tale about supply chain weaknesses

by Greg Klein | Updated May 21, 2019

Rare earths provide a cautionary tale about supply chain weaknesses

One of the world’s biggest supplies of magnet metals
undergoes separation at Lynas’ Malaysian facility. (Photo: Lynas Corp)

 

How often does an investor presentation draw such keen interest from non-investors?

No doubt representatives from a number of governments and industries watched intensely on May 21 as Lynas CEO/managing director Amanda Lacaze accentuated her company’s “will to win.” Lynas has plans in place and funding en route to overcome what previously appeared to be an unattainable ultimatum. Far from becoming a takeover target, let alone a jurisdictional fatality, the miner expects to continue building a rare earths supply chain “focused on rest-of-the-world markets, that is non-Chinese markets.”

That was her message, and if stirring delivery could convince listeners, Lacaze made her case. But insufficient details cast a pall of uncertainty. Clearly the company can’t meet a September 2 deadline to remove over 450,000 tonnes of radioactive waste from Malaysia and thereby avert a processing plant shutdown in that country which would render useless the company’s Mount Weld mine in Western Australia.

Rare earths provide a cautionary tale about supply chain weaknesses

One of the world’s richest rare earths deposits, Mount Weld boasts reserves expected to give over 25 additional years of production at 22,000 tonnes of rare earth oxides annually. Included is an especially bountiful distribution of the magnet metals neodymium and praseodymium. Lynas concentrates ore in WA before shipping material to Malaysia for refining and separation. But while rare earths metallurgy has stymied some other non-Chinese operations, this facility has operated successfully since 2012.

At least it did so under Malaysia’s previous government. Its first electoral defeat since the country’s 1957 independence brought to office a party long opposed to Lynas’ operation in Kuantan. Concerns about waste containing thorium and uranium brought to mind a Malaysian RE refinery operated by Mitsubishi up to 1992. The plant closed down after an increase in leukemia and birth defects that critics attributed to the operation’s waste.

Following an environmental review of Lynas’ facility late last year, the new government delivered two formidable demands: Ensure that all material brought into the country has been rendered non-radioactive. And remove seven years of accumulated radioactive tailings from the country by September 2. Failure to do so will shut down the plant, the government warned.

An enormous logistical problem notwithstanding, Lacaze and her “dream team” told investors they have solutions backed by a AU$500-million “capital envelope” from senior lender Japan Australia Rare Earths (JARE) and the Japanese trading company Sojitz Corp.

“Of course we cannot do this on the smell of an oily rag, much as we might like to,” Lacaze acknowledged.

Rare earths provide a cautionary tale about supply chain weaknesses

Lynas managing director Dato’ Mashal Ahmad at the
podium, CEO Amanda Lacaze holding the microphone
at the company’s May 21 shareholder presentation.

A new cracking and leaching plant to be built in WA would “detox” Mount Weld material. Plans to pour money into Malaysia to upgrade the company’s Kuantan facility also sounded an optimistic note. But accumulated waste remains troublesome.

As managing director Dato’ Mashal Ahmad explained, the company will counter the ultimatum by asking the government to choose one of two options: Allow Lynas to treat the waste by producing a type of fertilizer, or allow Lynas to build another waste depository in Malaysia. The company already has four years of research backing Option 1. As for Option 2, “which Lynas is prepared to do anytime,” the company has already chosen three potential sites.

To those skeptical that Malaysia would accept the proposals, Ahmad said the environmental review, which hasn’t been officially translated, pronounced the Kuantan operation safe. Politicians, not the report’s authors, issued the ultimatum, he maintained. Discussions with the government continue and another decision will come from the entire government, not individual politicians, Lacaze added. Based on what she termed “relatively constructive” public comments from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, she expressed “confidence in the outcome.”

An entirely different possibility for Lynas arose last March when Wesfarmers launched a AU$1.5-billion bid for the miner. One of Australia’s largest listed companies and a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate with interests including chemicals, energy, fertilizers and industrial products, Wesfarmers imposed a daunting condition: Kuantan must retain a valid permit for a “satisfactory period following completion of the transaction.” 

Lynas spurned the offer, provoking talk from Wesfarmers of going hostile. Undeterred, and the day before proclaiming its “will to win,” Lynas joined one of its customers, downstream rare earths processor Blue Line Corp, to announce a memorandum of understanding to build an RE separation plant in Texas. The proposed joint venture “would be the only large-scale producer of separated medium and heavy rare earth products in the world outside of China,” the companies stated.

Of course the Blue Line MOU lacks certainty, as does the strategy of presenting options in the face of a government ultimatum. $500 million isn’t all that much. To industry observers, the predicament once again emphasizes the need to create non-Chinese supply chains.

Rare earths provide a cautionary tale about supply chain weaknesses

A founding principal of Technology Metals
Research LLC and a senior fellow at the
Institute for Analysis of Global Security,
Jack Lifton has over 55 years’ experience
with technology metals.

Speaking with ResourceClips.com the week before Lynas’ May 20-21 announcements, Jack Lifton discussed the urgency of addressing critical minerals challenges.

A chemist specializing in metallurgy, a consultant, author and lecturer focusing on rare earths, lithium and other essentials that he labels “technology metals,” Lifton was one of four scientists hired by the previous Malaysian government to evaluate the Kuantan facility prior to its initial permit.

Wesfarmers “would have the money and the time” to solve Lynas’ problems, he said. “A $38-billion company can spend a year fixing problems and stay in business. If Lynas were shut down for a year, I think that would be the end of it.”

Earlier this month Wesfarmers offered AU$776 million for ASX-listed Kidman Resources, which shares a 50/50 JV with Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile SA (SQM) on the advanced-stage Mount Holland lithium project in Western Australia.

“Wesfarmers clearly knows all the problems with Lynas but they’re still interested in buying it,” Lifton pointed out.

The possibility of a Chinese buy-out, on the other hand, could meet opposition from either of two governments. Malaysia’s previous administration feared Chinese influence, Lifton says.

As for Australia, “I do not think that the government, as it will be constituted after this election, will allow the Chinese to buy what is basically the largest high-grade deposit of magnet rare earths on the planet,” he says. Even so, Chinese control could eliminate the Malaysian problem. “China has immense facilities and excess capacity for treating ore like that. They wouldn’t need the Malaysian plant, not at all.”

Control need not mean total ownership. Following Molycorp’s bankruptcy, California’s Mountain Pass mine quietly resumed production last year under MP Materials. With China’s Shenghe Rare Earth Company a minority shareholder, North America’s sole rare earths producer exports all its output to China.

Shenghe Resources comprises the world’s second-largest RE company by output. It holds a majority stake in ASX-listed Greenland Minerals, which describes its Kvanefjeld polymetallic deposit as having “potential to become the most significant Western world producer of rare earths.” Last August the companies signed an offtake MOU for the proposed mine’s total RE production.

Huatai Mining, a subsidiary of Chinese coal trader Shandong Taizhong Energy, holds 15.9% of ASX-listed Northern Minerals, which plans to become the “first significant dysprosium producer outside China” at the Browns Range project in Western Australia.

“Everything from Browns Range is now going to China for refining and use,” Lifton notes. “My understanding is that’s what’s going to happen in Greenland.”

Neither Greenland nor Northern can handle separation, he explains. “They can concentrate the ore, but where are the facilities to separate individual rare earths from the mixed concentrate? They are, today, overwhelmingly in China. The Chinese have an advantage in excess refining capacity.”

While Lifton thinks Malaysia would welcome Japanese ownership of Lynas, the Japanese no longer have processing abilities. They’re also burdened by Mitsubishi’s legacy.

“China does not, to the best of my knowledge, have ore as rich as Mount Weld. I don’t know of any other deposit on earth that’s so high-grade and well-distributed with magnet materials. So anyone who has processing would love to have that.”

If we don’t reconstitute a total American supply chain, if the Europeans don’t do the same, for the critical materials like rare earths, cobalt, lithium, we’re going to be out of luck.—Jack Lifton

Such a fate is now pure speculation but should Lynas face a Sino-scenario, it would only intensify a trend well underway, he adds. “They already have the largest RE industry on the planet and they’re buying RE, cobalt and other critical assets in Greenland, Africa, Australia, South America.

“If we don’t reconstitute a total American supply chain, if the Europeans don’t do the same, for the critical materials like rare earths, cobalt, lithium, we’re going to be out of luck. The Chinese in my opinion are already self-sufficient in rare earths, lithium and cobalt. They have mines all over the world that they own and operate, they have the bulk of chemical processing. They’re going to take care of their domestic needs first, and then if they want to export, they’ll control the price, the supply, and they do control the demand because at this time about 60% of all world metals goes to China.

“In America there’s a lot of talk now about critical minerals and some people are saying we need ‘a conversation’ on the subject. So while we think about it and have conversations, the Chinese are setting themselves up for the rest of this century.”

Senkaku II

July 23rd, 2018

How might a U.S.-China trade war affect rare earths?

 

At first glance, the rare earths aspect of the U.S.-China tariffs tussle looks like small change—a proposed 10% duty on American RE imports that might cause a smallish markup on some manufactured goods and wouldn’t necessarily apply to defence uses. But all that’s part of a much bigger battle that will probably target $250 billion of Chinese exports to the U.S. China used an incomparably smaller incident in 2010 to rationalize a ruthless sequence of rare earths trade machinations. Could something like that happen again, this time with different results?

How might a U.S.-China trade war affect rare earths?

Hostilities began earlier this month as the U.S. imposed a 25% tariff on approximately $34 billion worth of Chinese imports, with levies on another $16 billion likely to come. China retaliated with tariffs on equal amounts of American imports.

The U.S. re-retaliated with a threatened 10% on an additional $200 billion of Chinese imports in a process that would follow public consultation. The additional list includes rare earth metals along with yttrium and scandium, which are often considered REs but rate distinct categories in this case.

Last year the U.S. imported $150 million worth of 15 RE metals and compounds, up from $118 million the previous year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Some 78% came directly from China, with much of the rest derived from Chinese-produced concentrates. Yttrium shows a similar story, with 71% coming directly from China and nearly all the rest from Chinese concentrates. Although lacking hard numbers for scandium, the USGS states that too comes mostly from China.

Globally, China produced over 80% of world RE supply last year, but with less than 37% of the planet’s reserves.

Rare earths plus scandium comprise two of 35 mineral categories pronounced critical to the American economy and defence by Washington last May, after Donald Trump called for a “federal strategy to ensure secure and reliable supplies of critical minerals.” Now the same administration wants to slap those commodities with a 10% price hike.

And at risk of provoking powerful Chinese retaliation.

Rare earths watchers will remember the 2010 confrontation around the disputed East China Sea islands of Senkaku. The Japanese navy arrested a Chinese fishing crew captain who had twice rammed his boat against the military vessel. Within days, China banned all rare earths exports to Japan, crippling its globally important but RE-dependent manufacturers. China also imposed heavy cutbacks and duties on exports to other countries.

While some Western manufacturers relocated to China, Western resource companies strove to develop alternative supplies. Lynas Corp’s Mount Weld project in Western Australia and Molycorp’s Mountain Pass project in California both reached production in 2013. The following year the U.S. claimed victory as the World Trade Organization ordered China to drop its export restrictions on rare earths, as well as tungsten and molybdenum.

China complied with a vengeance, flooding the world with cheap RE supply. America’s WTO victory proved Pyrrhic as a burgeoning non-Chinese supply chain failed to compete. The most salient casualty was Mountain Pass, which went on care and maintenance in 2015.

So does China have more rare earths machinations in mind, this time responding not to a minor territorial dispute but tariffs affecting $250 billion of Chinese exports?

Maybe, but different circumstances might bring a different outcome. Since the Senkaku-induced RE crisis, advanced-stage projects have developed potential mines outside China. Work has progressed on non-Chinese supply chains, working to eliminate that country’s near-monopoly on processing expertise. Most recently, the U.S. has begun an official critical minerals policy to encourage development of supplies and supply chains in domestic and allied sources.

Of course any future scenario remains speculative. But this time the West might be better prepared for China’s tactics. Any new export restrictions might spur development of the deposits that now exist outside China. Any Chinese attempts to dump cheap supply could face further, far more punishing tariffs. While some other industries might suffer in the shorter term, Western resource companies might welcome Senkaku II.

Double discovery

November 18th, 2017

The USGS reports new American uranium potential and a new uranium “species”

by Greg Klein

The USGS reports new American uranium potential and a new uranium “species”

The Southern High Plains of Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma
might someday boost U.S. domestic uranium supply.
(Photo: Public domain)

 

The dream of discovery must motivate many a geologist. Through skill, effort and luck they hope to eventually find something precious, useful or otherwise valuable—something well known yet found in a previously unknown location. But a group of geo-boffins from the U.S. Geological Survey not only identified a type of uranium deposit previously unknown to their country, they discovered a new mineral.

It’s finchite, “a new uranium mineral species,” as a press release described it last week. The discovery actually dates to 2015, says Brad Van Gosen, the USGS scientist who did the discovering.

While surveying a Texas cotton ranch Van Gosen collected samples of what he and his colleagues thought was carnotite, “a pretty common yellow, near-surface uranium mineral.” Back in the lab, he put it under a scanning electron microscope, which kept showing strontium with the uranium and vanadium, he recalls. To a geologist, it was unusual—very unusual. A eureka moment was looming.

The USGS reports new American uranium potential and a new uranium “species”

First to recognize the new mineral finchite, USGS scientist
Brad Van Gosen examines rock layers in Texas.
(Photo: Susan Hall/USGS, public domain)

“We looked it up and there’d been no strontium-uranium mineral ever reported before. So [team leader Susan Hall] worked with a crystallography/mineralogy lab that specializes in micro-analysis up at Notre Dame and they concluded, ‘By gosh you’re right.’” Further study continued before sending the evidence to the International Mineralogical Association. “They’re the high council and they blessed it as a new mineral.” Finchite’s moniker honours the late Warren Finch, a USGS uranium expert.

Another major finding was that the uranium was hosted in calcrete rock formations, a style of deposit known elsewhere but reported for the first time in the U.S.

Some previously secret info led to the twin epiphanies. Hall, as leader of a project that’s reassessing national uranium resources, gained privy to some unpublished 1970s and ’80s data from the former Kerr-McGee company. Included were estimates for two deposits, Sulphur Springs Draw and Buffalo Draw, with marginal grades of 0.04% and 0.05% U3O8 respectively. Together they held an estimated 2.6 million pounds U3O8.

(Of course data from historic sources and the U.S. government agency falls outside the framework of NI 43-101 regulations.)

The newly transpired, near-surface deposits led Hall and her group to the Southern High Plains spanning parts of Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. It was there that they recognized calcrete, its first known manifestation in the U.S.

The USGS reports new American uranium potential and a new uranium “species”

Surface showings of yellow finchite might have previously
been mistaken for sulphur, says Van Gosen.
(Photo: Susan Hall/USGS, public domain)

The stuff’s associated with uranium in other countries. Among major calcrete-style deposits listed by the World Nuclear Association are Yeelirrie in Western Australia, along with Trekkopje and Langer Heinrich in Namibia. Yeelirrie is a potential open pit held by a Cameco Corp TSX:CCO subsidiary and averaging 0.16% U3O8. Trekkopje, a potential open pit majority-held by AREVA Resources, averages 0.01%. Langer Heinrich, an open pit mine operated on behalf of Paladin Energy, the majority owner now under administrative control, averages 0.052%.

According to the USGS, grades for potential Southern High Plains deposits range from 0.012% to 0.067%, with a median 0.034% U3O8. Gross tonnage estimates range from 200,000 to 52 million tonnes, with a median 8.4 million tonnes. Together, the region’s calcrete-style potential comes to 39.9 million pounds U3O8.

But that’s a regional assessment, not a resource estimate, reflecting how USGS methodology contrasts with that of exploration companies. The agency uses a three-part approach, explains Mark Mihalasky, who co-ordinated the assessment. The procedure first delineates areas that would allow the occurrence of a particular kind of deposit. Using additional geoscientific evidence, the agency estimates how many deposits might be awaiting discovery. How much those potential deposits hold can be estimated through comparisons with similar known deposits around the world.

Mineral assessment and mineral exploration are two different things…. It’s not a ‘drill here’ assessment.—Mark Mihalasky

“Mineral assessment and mineral exploration are two different things,” Mihalasky emphasizes. “The purpose of our assessment is to help land planners, decision-makers and people in the region get an idea of what could be there, based upon probability. It’s not a ‘drill here’ assessment.

“This whole region is a relatively newly recognized area of potential and while we’re not saying this is a new uranium province we are saying there’s something here that hasn’t been found before in the United States and this might be worth looking into in greater detail if you’re an exploration company.”

Already one company from Australia has been asking “lots of questions,” says Van Gosen. Although most uranium mining in the American west uses in-situ recovery, the shallow depth and soft host rock of the Southern High Plains could present open pit opportunities “assuming uranium prices and other factors are favourable.”

Any positive price assumption will have to wait, however. One week earlier Cameco announced the impending suspension of its high-grade McArthur River mine and Key Lake mill in Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Basin. The company said that long-term contracts had shielded it from uranium’s post-Fukushima plunge of over 70%, but those contracts are now expiring. Cameco had previously suspended its Rabbit Lake mine and reduced production at its American operations.

But while production faces cutbacks, controversy over American dependence on foreign uranium flared up again last month with renewed questions about the sale of Uranium One to Russia’s state-owned Rosatom. The formerly TSX-listed Uranium One holds American resources that could potentially produce up to 1,400 tonnes of uranium annually, according to the WNA. But last year the company’s sole U.S. operation, the Willow Creek ISR mine, produced just 23 tonnes of the country’s total output of 1,126 tonnes.

As the world’s largest consumer of uranium for energy, the U.S. relies on nukes for about 19% of the country’s electricity, according to USGS numbers. Only 11% of last year’s uranium purchases came from domestic sources.

Update: The full USGS report is now available here.

USGS reports new domestic uranium potential and new uranium “species”

November 14th, 2017

This story has been expanded and moved here.

Who gets a stake in this strategic U.S. asset—the Russian billionaire, the Chinese company or both?

June 16th, 2017

by Greg Klein | June 16, 2017

Efforts to reduce U.S. dependency on Chinese rare earths took an uncertain turn on June 15 as a group representing three American firms and a Chinese REE producer placed the winning bid for Mountain Pass. But the sale of bankrupt Molycorp Minerals’ former California mine, until its 2015 shutdown the only REE operation in the U.S., faces a number of challenges.

Who gets a stake in this strategic U.S. asset—the Russian billionaire, the Chinese company or both?

Mountain Pass: Could one rival bidder get the
mine while another holds the mineral rights?

The US$20.5-million top bid came from MP Mine Operations LLC, which “includes two noteholder groups from Molycorp’s original bankruptcy as well as Chinese investor Shenghe Resources Shareholding Co Ltd,” reported Law360.com. Shenghe Resources Holding is a Chinese company engaged in smelting, deep processing and sales of rare earths and other metals, according to Bloomberg, which notes Shenghe is a subsidiary of the China Geological Survey Institute of Multipurpose Utilization of Mineral Resources.

The bid surpassed a US$20-million stalking horse from ERP Strategic Minerals, part of the U.S.-based ERP Group of companies headed by Tom Clarke. The American billionaire credits his group with “a strong track record of restarting mines acquired out of U.S. bankruptcy and Canadian CCAA situations.” ERP planned to work with Pala Investments, headed by Russian-born billionaire Vladimir Iorich, and ASX-listed Peak Resources for financial, technical and operational support of the Mountain Pass mine and processing facility.

ERP had challenged the rival bid in court, saying the offer could be blocked by the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment or other regulators, Law360.com stated. The journal quoted ERP arguing that, without a pre-bid review, “the stalking horse bidder will be prejudiced by having to compete against unfair, non-complying bids, and there is a real risk of a flawed auction and a failed sales process.”

Who gets a stake in this strategic U.S. asset—the Russian billionaire, the Chinese company or both?

Bankrupt Molycorp’s former assets include an REE processing facility.

A judge allowed the auction to proceed, “setting the stage for a sale hearing on June 23,” Law360.com added. The site previously reported that the hearing was scheduled to consider objections from three federal regulatory agencies that say the former operation’s permits can’t be transferred through the auction.

According to Peak Resources, ERP will file an objection to the auction by June 19 “and may consider other legal remedies” prior to the June 23 hearing.

But members of the winning group already hold the mineral rights, according to the Financial Times. Last month the paper stated the rights are held by MP Mine Operations members JHL Capital Group and QVT Financial, both Molycorp creditors, along with Oaktree Capital. The American firms planned to work with Shenghe, the Chinese REE processor.

Contemplating a successful ERP bid prior to the auction, “Mr. Clarke said his group could still use the mine site to process material from elsewhere if they did not get the mineral rights—but he hoped to negotiate for them if he wins,” the paper added.

Mountain Pass went on care and maintenance in 2015 after Molycorp piled up some US$1.7 billion in debt. That left Lynas Corp’s Mount Weld operation in Western Australia as the world’s only significant source of rare earths outside China, which produces and processes about 90% of global supply.

The U.S. Geological Survey considers rare earths critical to the country’s economy and defence. Under the proposed METALS Act, a bill before U.S. Congress, the federal government would support the development of domestic sources and supply chains for critical minerals including rare earths.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba first and second globally as mining jurisdictions

March 1st, 2017

by Greg Klein | March 1, 2017

Saskatchewan edged one notch upwards to take first place worldwide while Manitoba soared from 19th to second in this year’s Fraser Institute survey of mining and exploration jurisdictions. Those two provinces pushed last year’s top performer, Western Australia, down to third place. Canada’s other top 10 spot went to Quebec, rising to sixth from eighth the year before. All continents but Antarctica came under scrutiny but Canadian, American, Australian and European locales monopolized the top 10.

Farther down the list, the strongest Canadian improvements were Newfoundland and Labrador, climbing to 16th from 25th, and the Northwest Territories, now 21st, previously 35th. Most disappointing were British Columbia (falling to 27th from 18th), Nunavut (31st from 23rd) and Alberta (47th from 34th).

Those findings come from the survey’s Investment Attractiveness Index, which combines two other indices—Policy Perception, a “report card” on government attitudes, and Best Practices Mineral Potential, concerning geological appeal. Representatives of 104 companies responded with their 2016 experiences in mind, giving a numerical rating to questions in several categories regarding their likelihood of investing in a particular jurisdiction. The previous year 109 companies responded.

Here’s the top 10 globally for overall investment attractiveness, with last year’s standings in parentheses:

1 Saskatchewan (2)

2 Manitoba (19)

3 Western Australia (1)

4 Nevada (3)

5 Finland (5)

6 Quebec (8)

7 Arizona (17)

8 Sweden (13)

9 Ireland (4)

10 Queensland (16)

Here are the Canadian runners-up:

15 Yukon (12)

16 Newfoundland and Labrador (25)

18 Ontario (15)

21 Northwest Territories (35)

27 British Columbia (18)

31 Nunavut (23)

40 New Brunswick (45)

47 Alberta (34)

52 Nova Scotia (59)

At least those provinces and territories steered far clear of the bottom 10, where Argentina figures prominently:

95 Mozambique (84)

96 Zimbabwe (98)

97 India (73)

98 Mendoza province, Argentina (101)

99 La Rioja province, Argentina (109)

100 Afghanistan (not available)

101 Chubut province, Argentina (104)

102 Venezuela (108)

103 Neuquen province, Argentina (93)

104 Jujuy province, Argentina (86)

“We believe that the survey captures, at least in broad strokes, the perceptions of those involved in both mining and the regulation of mining in the jurisdictions included in the survey,” stated authors Taylor Jackson and Kenneth P. Green.

Download the Fraser Institute Annual Survey of Mining Companies 2016.

A 2016 retrospect

December 20th, 2016

Was it the comeback year for commodities—or just a tease?

by Greg Klein

Some say optimism was evident early in the year, as the trade shows and investor conferences began. Certainly as 2016 progressed, so did much of the market. Commodities, some of them anyway, picked up. In a lot of cases, so did valuations. The crystal ball of the industry’s predictionariat often seemed to shine a rosier tint. It must have been the first time in years that people actually stopped saying, “I think we’ve hit bottom.”

But it would have been a full-out bull market if every commodity emulated lithium.

By February Benchmark Mineral Intelligence reported the chemical’s greatest-ever price jump as both hydroxide and carbonate surpassed $10,000 a tonne, a 47% increase for the latter’s 2015 average. The Macquarie Group later cautioned that the Big Four of Albermarle NYSE:ALB, FMC Corp NYSE:FMC, SQM NYSE:SQM and Talison Lithium had been mining significantly below capacity and would ramp up production to protect market share.

Was this the comeback year for commodities—or just a tease?

That they did, as new supply was about to come online from sources like Galaxy Resources’ Mount Cattlin mine in Western Australia, which began commissioning in November. The following month Orocobre TSX:ORL announced plans to double output from its Salar de Olaroz project in Argentina. Even Bolivia sent a token 9.3 tonnes to China, suggesting the mining world’s outlaw finally intends to develop its lithium deposits, estimated to be the world’s largest at 22% of global potential.

Disagreeing with naysayers like Macquarie and tracking at least 12 Li-ion megafactories being planned, built or expanded to gigawatt-hour capacity by 2020, Benchmark in December predicted further price increases for 2017.

Obviously there was no keeping the juniors out of this. Whether or not it’s a bubble destined to burst, explorers snapped up prospects, issuing news releases at an almost frantic flow that peaked in mid-summer. Acquisitions and early-stage activity often focused on the western U.S., South America’s Lithium Triangle and several Canadian locations too.

In Quebec’s James Bay region, Whabouchi was subject of a feasibility update released in April. Calling the development project “one of the richest spodumene hard rock lithium deposits in the world, both in volume and grade,” Nemaska Lithium TSX:NMX plans to ship samples from its mine and plant in Q2 2017.

A much more despairing topic was cobalt, considered by some observers to be the energy metal to watch. At press time instability menaced the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces an estimated 60% of global output. Far overshadowing supply-side concerns, however, was the threat of a humanitarian crisis triggered by president Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his mandate on December 20.

Was this the comeback year for commodities—or just a tease?

But the overall buoyant market mood had a practical basis in base metals, led by zinc. In June prices bounced back from the six-year lows of late last year to become “by far the best-performing LME metal,” according to Reuters. Two months later a UBS spokesperson told the news agency refiners were becoming “panicky.”

Mine closures in the face of increasing demand for galvanized steel and, later in the year, post-U.S. election expectations of massive infrastructure programs, pushed prices 80% above the previous year. They then fell closer to 70%, but remained well within levels unprecedented over the last five years. By mid-December one steelmaker told the Wall Street Journal to expect “a demand explosion.”

Lead lagged, but just for the first half of 2016. Spot prices had sunk to about 74 cents a pound in early June, when the H2 ascension began. Reaching an early December peak of about $1.08, the highest since 2013, the metal then slipped beneath the dollar mark.

Copper lay at or near five-year lows until November, when a Trump-credited surge sent the red metal over 60% higher, to about $2.54 a pound. Some industry observers doubted it would last. But columnist Andy Home dated the rally to October, when the Donald was expected to lose. Home attributed copper’s rise to automated trading: “Think the copper market equivalent of Skynet, the artificial intelligence network that takes over the world in the Terminator films.” While other markets have experienced the same phenomenon, he maintained, it’s probably the first, but not the last time for a base metal.

Was this the comeback year for commodities—or just a tease?

Nickel’s spot price started the year around a piddling $3.70 a pound. But by early December it rose to nearly $5.25. That still compared poorly with 2014 levels well above $9 and almost $10 in 2011. Nickel’s year was characterized by Indonesia’s ban on exports of unprocessed metals and widespread mine suspensions in the Philippines, up to then the world’s biggest supplier of nickel ore.

More controversial for other reasons, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte began ordering suspensions shortly after his June election. His environmental secretary Regina Lopez then exhorted miners to surpass the world’s highest environmental standards, “better than Canada, better than Australia. We must be better and I know it can be done.”

Uranium continued to present humanity with a dual benefit—a carbon-free fuel for emerging middle classes and a cautionary example for those who would predict the future. Still oblivious to optimistic forecasts, the recalcitrant metal scraped a post-Fukushima low of $18 in December before creeping to $20.25 on the 19th. The stuff fetched around $72 a pound just before the 2011 tsunami and hit $136 in 2007.

The world’s most popular mints: Key facts and comparisons

June 1st, 2016

Story by Jeff Desjardins, Visual Capitalist | Infographic by JM Bullion

In the precious metals industry, trust is paramount. That’s why if you own gold or silver bullion, there is a good chance it comes from one of the world’s few internationally recognized mints.

This infographic from JM Bullion highlights key facts and comparisons about some of the world’s most popular mints, including the United States Mint, the Royal Canadian Mint, the Perth Mint, PAMP Suisse and Sunshine Minting.

The world’s most popular mints: Key facts and comparisons

 

Some quick facts on each of the world’s most popular mints:

The United States Mint was founded in 1792 and now has minting operations in Philadelphia, Denver, West Point and San Francisco. The mint produced more than 17 billion coins for circulation in 2015, the fastest annual pace since 19.4 billion coins were struck in 2001. Legend holds that George Washington donated some of his personal silver to the mint for manufacturing early coinage.

The Royal Canadian Mint was founded in 1908 in Ottawa. It produces over one billion coins per year, with the Silver Maple Leaf as its signature bullion offering. In 2007, the Royal Canadian Mint created the largest coin in the world—a 100-kilogram, 99.999% pure, $1-million gold bullion coin.

The Perth Mint was founded in 1899. It was originally built to refine metal from the gold rushes occurring in Western Australia, while also distributing sovereigns and half-sovereigns for the British Empire. In 1970, the mint’s jurisdiction was moved to the state government of Western Australia. The Australian Kookaburra (1990-), Koala (2007-) and Kangaroo (1990-1993, 2016-) are some of the mint’s most popular products among bullion buyers.

PAMP Suisse, a private mint, was founded in Switzerland in 1977. The mint refines an impressive 450 tonnes of gold annually, and much of the gold used for worldwide jewelry production comes from PAMP. The mint also produces the popular Fortuna bar, which is available in gold, silver and platinum, with sizes ranging from one gram to 100 ounces.

Sunshine Minting is another private mint. Founded in Idaho in 1979, Sunshine mints 70 million ounces of bullion each year, including its version of the popular Silver Buffalo Round. Sunshine Minting is also the primary supplier of one-ounce silver planchets (round metal disks, ready to be struck as coins) to the United States Mint.

Story by Jeff Desjardins, Visual Capitalist | Infographic by JM Bullion