Relics of a bygone era, processing units at Molycorp’s Mountain Pass mine made the United States a world leader in rare earth production. New state-of-the-art facilities and production technologies will help the southern California mine regain its former luster, company officials say. Photo by Phil Taylor.
MOUNTAIN PASS, Calif. -- About an hour's drive southwest of Las Vegas, on a private 2,200-acre desert patch flanked by Clark Mountain and the Mojave National Preserve, lies an idled mine many consider to be a linchpin in the U.S. push for energy independence and national security.
The Mountain Pass mine, once the world's leading producer of rare earth minerals used to manufacture cutting-edge weapons and clean energy technologies, shuttered operations here in 2002 after Chinese producers undercut its prices and a series of environmental spills stalled the renewal of state mining permits.
Today, the mine musters a fraction of its historical output and must ship the materials to Asia, where plants equipped with the technology and know-how to process the oxides into metals have created a virtual monopoly on the rare earth supply chain.
But it does not have to be that way, according to U.S. mining firms scouting the West for new domestic rare earth deposits to develop into mines and production facilities.
While reviving domestic supplies would be costly, policymakers got a glimpse of what inaction could mean after Chinese export cuts exposed what some say is a gap in U.S. energy policy.