Opinion: Unearthing our potential09/14/2023 12:17PM ● By State Rep. Mike Armanini, 75th Legislative District
Historically known as a hub of industrial innovation, Pennsylvania is now poised to enter a new era of economic prosperity through the mining and refinement of rare-earth minerals. As global demand for these critical elements skyrockets, the Commonwealth has a unique opportunity to leverage its rich geological endowment to not only boost its economy but also contribute significantly to technological advancements and our nation’s security.
Rare-earth minerals, a group of 17 elements, play a pivotal role in modern technology. They are crucial to manufacturing consumer electronics, renewable energy systems, and advanced defense technologies. Electric vehicles, rechargeable batteries, wind turbines, smartphones, laser and missile guidance, and even medical devices depend on these minerals for their functionality. With the nation’s increasing focus on electrification and technological innovation, the demand for rare-earth minerals has reached unprecedented levels.
As the United States has only one-percent of the world’s reserves of primary rare earth mineral sources, those being reserves readily mined in traditional manners, our nation is profoundly net import reliant. The current rare-earth supply chain is heavily concentrated in a handful of countries, primarily China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where extraction occurs under lax environmental regulations, often resulting in ecological devastation and human rights violations. Additionally, in the event of geopolitical tensions or disruptions, the United States could find itself compromised and unable to maintain crucial defense capabilities. The inherent risk in depending on foreign sources of rare earth minerals cannot be overstated.
To mitigate this risk, our country must develop a robust domestic rare-earth minerals industry. By investing in exploration, mining and refining capabilities within its borders, our country can establish a secure supply chain that reduces reliance on external sources. This effort is not only an economic opportunity, but a matter of national security.
While the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not have a history of rare earth mineral mining, we may hold the key to untethering our nation from foreign dependence. Efforts to revitalize old mines and find new uses for mine drainage will simultaneously catalyze economic prosperity, right the environmental wrongs of the past and offer new opportunities for our citizens.
Despite the name, rare-earth minerals are not rare in the earth’s crust, but they are widely dispersed in low concentrations. This being the case, the process of mining primary sources in Pennsylvania is economically impracticable. Pennsylvania’s rich history with the coal and steel industries, however, has produced a unique and economically viable opportunity by creating an abundant reserve of secondary sources of rare-earth minerals.
According to industry experts at Pennsylvania State University, the decline of the coal mining industry has left behind 184,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, including more than 9,500 acres of coal refuse piles across the western and northwestern portion of the state. The volume of coal waste harbored within Pennsylvania is considerable, estimated to range from 200 million to 8 billion cubic yards in total. Locked within the unwanted leftovers of decades of industrial mining is a vast opportunity for the Commonwealth – significant quantities of rare-earth minerals that can be processed in an environmentally friendly and economically feasible way. Existing mine lands and waste are ready to be mined again and refined, cleaning up our environment and providing the resources to power our future.
With proper investment, innovation and strategic planning, Pennsylvania can reinvigorate our manufacturing industry, generating much-needed employment opportunities for its citizens, particularly in areas that have suffered economic decline. The emergence of our rare-earth minerals industry will empower struggling families with a renewed sense of purpose and financial security, ultimately forging a stronger sense of community.
By seizing this opportunity, the state will become a beacon of innovation, create jobs, and bolster national security. With the right strategy, support, and know-how, Pennsylvania can contribute significantly to securing the future of the United States while uplifting its own citizens on a path toward hope and prosperity.