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Vol. 16, No. 4 Week of January 23, 2011
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

Mining News: Mining at top of Alaska governor’s agenda

Parnell wants road to Ambler Mining District within five years, calls for strategic assessment of state’s rare earth potential

Shane Lasley

Mining News

Unlocking Alaska’s vast mineral resource has been at the top of Gov. Sean Parnell’s agenda since being elected to his first full term as the state’s governor in November, a position he reiterated during his Jan. 19 State of the State address.

“Without liberty, we cannot have a strong economy. So let’s take stock of our economy and what we must do to keep it sound. Of course, there are many topics we could discuss: gasline, the university, fish. All are important, but tonight our focus is on three sectors of Alaska’s economy: oil, energy, and mining. With the federal government thwarting job potential on public lands, it is up to the state to look for every opportunity to foster business investment, and grow private sector jobs,” Parnell told the state legislators and fellow Alaskans.

Two of the governor’s mining priorities are building a road to the Ambler Mining District and evaluating Alaska’s rare earth element potential.

Unlocking Ambler

The Ambler Mining District lies on the southern slopes of the Brooks Range about 200 miles, or 320 kilometers, west of Alaska’s contiguous road system. Though this region hosts multiple mineral-rich deposit, its potential remained stowed away due to its lack of access.

NovaGold Resources Inc.’s Arctic Deposit, the most developed mineral project in the Ambler District, ranks among the top 10 percent of known volcanogenic massive sulfide deposits in the world. It is estimated that Arctic contains 2.5 billion pounds of copper, 3.5 billion pounds of zinc, 50.9 million ounces of silver and 710,000 ounces of gold.

Besides Arctic, the Ambler District is home to several other VMS deposits, including Teck Resources Ltd.’s Smucker project and Andover Ventures Ltd.’s Sun property. The copper-rich Bornite deposit on NANA Regional Native Corp. land is also located in the area.

Gov. Parnell wants to see road access to these mineral resources in the next five years; to this end the governor has proposed spending US$1.25 million on top of the US$4 appropriated last year to complete the engineering studies, environmental permitting and public process need to make this a reality.

“Low-cost access to state lands is also a key to unlocking more jobs. So let’s work together to finish roads to significant resources in the next five years. If we can finish the road to Umiat and the road to the Ambler Mining District, we can create access and economic opportunity previously thought impossible. We can grow jobs in rural Alaska,” he said.

Assessing REEs

“Besides building roads to resources and making progress on a gasline, I see a day when we can unlock a new set of resources for our nation. Alaska can become America’s source for rare earth elements. We cannot afford to be dependent on foreign sources of rare earth elements – and we believe Alaska’s subsurface contains vast quantities,” Gov. Parnell said when rolling out his proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget in December.

To this end he included US$500,000 to perform a strategic assessment of rare earth elements in Alaska in his budget.

“If we want our economy to become even more dynamic, we must also look to our untapped resources. Few people have ever heard of rare earth minerals, but rare earth minerals are of increasing importance in the world economy. These rare earth elements are used in almost every piece of electronic equipment you can think of; flat screen TVs, iPods, cell phones, aircraft radar systems, and much, much more,” Parnell said Jan. 19.

These technological metals have gained mainstream notoriety since China, which mines about 97 percent of the global supply of REEs, dramatically reduced its exports of these minerals.

The Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China Dec. 28 reported plans to export 14,508 tons of rare earth elements in the first half of 2011. This represents a 35 percent reduction compared REEs exported by China during the same period in 2010.

Over the past three years China has cut its REE exports by 49 percent, from 59,600 tons in 2007 to 30,300 tons in 2010. Over the past year alone the Far East country reduced its exports by 40 percent from 50,100 tons exported in 2009.

The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has proposed banning all exports of heavy rare earth elements (dysprosium, terbium, thulium, lutetium and yttrium), which are particularly critical to the manufacturing of high-tech devices. There is no indication that current export quotas provide special provisions for HREEs.

“Today, our Pacific Rim neighbor, China, controls 97 percent of the world market for these rare earth elements. Recently, China imposed trade quotas and increased tariffs on these precious commodities. And, China announced it is substantially reducing access to these rare earth elements. These policies will cost Americans more of our hard-earned money and jeopardize national security. We cannot afford to rely on foreign sources to meet our nation’s demand. And you know what; there may be no reason to. Alaska is a storehouse of rare earth minerals. Let’s explore them. That’s why this year we should work together to fund a strategic assessment of these minerals to determine, once again, how Alaska can help meet America’s needs,” Parnell said.

REE exploration under way

Ucore Rare Metals Inc.’s heavy rare earth element-enriched Bokan Mountain project located on Prince of Wales Island about 37 miles, or 60 kilometers, west of Ketchikan is Alaska’s most advanced REE project.

The Dotson Ridge deposit at Ucore’s Bokan Mountain project is not a particularly high-grade or large rare earth deposit but it has a high ratio of the most sought after heavy rare earth elements, dysprosium in particular.

In December, the U.S Department of Energy Dec. 15 released “Critical Materials Strategy,” a 166-page report examining the role of rare earth elements and other materials vital to the clean energy economy. In its report DOE name dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium as most critical of the REEs based on importance to clean energy technologies and supply risk.

Commenting on the DOE report, Ucore President and CEO Jim McKenzie said, “This report is important to Ucore shareholders, since it highlights the metals at the greatest shortfall and at the highest level of critical strategic risk. Strikingly, Ucore’s U.S.–based Bokan Mountain project has exhibited anomalously high content of four of the five rare earth elements set out by the US DOE as being at greatest risk: Dysprosium, terbium, europium and yttrium, all of which are classified as Heavy Rare Earths. Recognized as the largest historically documented heavy rare earth deposit on US soil and considered by many to be the nearest domestic HREE asset to production, Bokan is well positioned to address these critical shortages.”

Studies conducted by the United States Geological Survey has discovered REE prospects across Alaska, but little work has been done to advance these potential resources.

Contango Ore Inc. is beginning to investigate some of these other prospects. The newly-formed Houston-based explorer has staked six properties with REE potential and plans to conduct reconnaissance exploration in 2011.

Alaska Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels told Mining News that senior staff from Gov. Parnell’s office will be joining him at the 2011 AME BC Minerals Exploration Roundup.

During their visit to Vancouver, B.C., the top Alaska officials will be meeting with representatives from Ucore Rare Metals and other companies working to unlock Alaska’s vast mineral potential.

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