High market prices have created a boom in mining for gold, silver, copper, molybdenum, and uranium in Mountain America. And, though its image is somewhat tarnished at the moment, coal is and will remain a major source of fuel in this country and abroad for the foreseeable future, with vast amounts continuing to be mined in Wyoming and other Mountain states. Clean coal technologies, including carbon sequestration, will make coal a more environmentally acceptable fuel, and Wyoming coal will increasingly be exported as far as Europe and Asia.
Mining claims — particularly for uranium — have shot up even more. In Colorado, the number of new mining claims has increased 322 percent in the past five years. This dramatic growth, much of it on federal lands, has led to renewed calls for another major revamping of the General Mining Act of 1872, the basic law governing mining on federal lands. Last November the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007, which requires miners to pay 8 percent royalties on all new claims on federal lands and 4 percent on existing ones. Most of the revenue would be dedicated to the cleanup of abandoned mine sites, mimicking the federal program that already uses royalties from coal mining to clean up abandoned mines. The bill would also prohibit the staking of mining claims on environmentally sensitive or valuable areas. The Senate has yet to pass its version of this measure, though it is likely to do so before Congress adjourns this fall.
States, meanwhile, are increasingly looking toward legislation that would further restrict mining, or if it is allowed, saddle its production with more and larger taxes in the form of royalties or severance fees. One measure under consideration in the Colorado Legislature, as originally introduced, would have banned the use of the most common method of uranium recovery — in situ leaching (ISL) — because of fears the process could contaminate underground aquifers. After substantially modifying the bill, a House committee voted to indefinitely postpone action on the measure.
And, despite a recent decline in the price of uranium yellowcake from its mid-2007 high of $138 per pound to somewhere in the $70-75/pound range, the demand for fuel for nuclear power plants is expected to grow. The price of yellowcake just four years ago was only $15 per pound, but announced plans for dozens of new nuclear power plants worldwide drove the price sky high before it declined to its more sustainable present level. In recent months the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received three applications for new uranium ISL projects in Wyoming and is anticipating 15 more, plus applications for a number of restarts and expansions of existing facilities. The sites are in Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. Many are on federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
"It has been two decades since the BLM has dealt with this level of interest in uranium mining; experts have retired, and new processing techniques have emerged," said BLM deputy director Henri Bisson. "In order to effectively and safely manage the processing of these notices and plans of operating, the BLM will be conducting a workshop this summer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state regulatory agencies."
On the coal front, a report released in March revealed that U.S. power plant CO2 emissions increased 2.9 percent last year and 11.7 percent in the past decade. Something, obviously, has to be done to arrest this trend, particularly since the U.S. Department of Energy projects that CO2 emissions will increase another 19 percent between 2007 and 2030 due to new or expanded coal plants. Some 4,115 megawatts of new coal-fired generating capacity were added between 2000 and 2007, with up to 15,000 additional megawatts expected to come on line between 2008 and 2030. A variety of clean coal technologies are expected to help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by coal-fired power plants, and Wyoming — the world's top coal producer at a record 452 million tons in 2007 — took the lead recently when Gov. Dave Freudenthal signed House Bills 89 and 90. The former measure gives the state Department of Environmental Quality authority to regulate long-term storage of CO2, while the latter recognizes that surface owners control the underground pore spaces where carbon dioxide could be stored or sequestered. These are the first practical steps in the country toward making one of the most promising clean coal technologies — carbon sequestration — practical.
Mining employment continues to grow, even in states where other employment is declining. Nevada is a prime example. Perhaps the most economically depressed state in Mountain America due to the subprime mortgage crisis, Nevada's unemployment rate in January was 5.5 percent — a full percentage point above the year earlier figure, though down from December's 5.8 percent. And new job creation, in which Nevada was a national leader for the past decade, dropped to just 1 percent last year. But that is not the case in Elko and other rural mining areas of the state. "With gold and copper prices at or near record highs, Nevada's mining industry should continue to flourish," said the state's chief economist, Bill Anderson.
The demand for skilled workers, in fact, is considerably greater than the supply. Speaking of the Nevada goldfields, Lee Chapman of Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp. said recently, "There is an enormous people shortage here. Technicians, craftsmen and blue-collar skilled workers are scarce as March hares out here.
"Probably finding and retaining the work force is the No. 1 challenge we face, not only because of the demographics but because the work force in the U.S. has changed so much. There was a time . . . when we'd have 300 to 400 people applying for a job and lines outside the building," Chapman continued. "Today when we post a job we might get 10 applications and nobody standing at the door." And the same is true at the coal mines of Wyoming's Powder River Basin, and just about any other mining location in Mountain America. "We have to find people that like living in small-town America," Chapman noted.
That the mining boom continues to have an increasing impact is evidenced by two March announcements of major equipment acquisitions. On March 5, Kennecott Utah Copper, the wholly owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto Mining, announced a $73-million investment for machinery and equipment "to accelerate mining operations at the Bingham Canyon Mine" southwest of Salt Lake City. The announcement continued, "The investment will enable Kennecott to move more material per day, accelerating near-term copper delivery to help meet global demand and provide potential expansion opportunities for future operations at the 105-year-old Bingham Canyon Mine. The money will be used to purchase additional haul trucks, graders, dozers, electric shovels and drills. ... Potential open pit expansions and underground operations could extend the life of the mine to 2036."
A March 19 release relates to the planned startup this year of yet another Nevada gold mine: "Allied Nevada Gold Corp. is pleased to announce that it has purchased a used mining fleet for $13.9 million. The mining fleet will be used at the company's Hycroft open pit mine located near Winnemucca, Nevada. The fleet consists of five 200-ton haul trucks, two 28-yard wheel loaders, two blasthole drills, and various pieces of support equipment. The fleet will be disassembled and shipped to the Hycroft Mine in the near future and is scheduled to begin operating in the second quarter of 2008. The purchase of the ... fleet moves us another step closer to meeting our goal of achieving gold production in the fourth quarter of 2008."
Following are just a few of the many recent mining developments in Mountain America:
- The Bureau of Land Management's Elko District Office will prepare an environmental impact statement for proposed amendments to Newmont Mining Corp.'s plan of operations for Genesis-Bluestar, an open pit gold mine 20 miles north of Carlin, Nev. The project proposes to expand the Genesis and West Genesis open pits, open a new Bluestar Ridge pit, backfill four existing pits, and add new waste rock disposal facilities, all to process an estimated 60 million tons of gold-bearing material.
- After a year-long investigation into mercury emissions, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection last month ordered Queenstake Resources to shut down the processing plant of its Jerritt Canyon Mine near the Idaho border about 50 miles north of Elko and install new, more effective emission control equipment for its ore roasters.
- Colorado Goldfields, a new gold acquisition and exploration company, is seeking to exercise its option to acquire an 80-percent interest in 44 patented and 13 unpatented mining claims in the Gold King and Mogul Mine properties and a 70-percent interest in 19 patented claims in the Mayflower Mine, all in San Juan County, Colo. The mines were all formerly producing operations and would be reactivated by Colorado Goldfields.
- Nevada Copper Corp. has completed a positive preliminary economic assessment of its Pumpkin Hollow copper property in western Nevada, which the company plans as an integrated underground and open pit mining operation with a standard milling and flotation plant to produce high-grade copper concentrates. The company has embarked on a systematic fast-track program to develop the Pumpkin Hollow property into Nevada's next producing copper mine.
- The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining has approved the transfer of the existing mine permit for the energy Queen Mine near La Sal, Utah, to Toronto-based Energy Fuels Resources Corp. from former owner Denison Mines. With this approval, Energy Fuels has its first fully permitted uranium/vanadium mine. Full scale refurbishment activities have begun, and initial production is expected in 2009. The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety has also approved a hard rock reclamation permit for Energy Fuels' Whirlwind Mine near Gateway, in western Colorado. The only remaining approval to be obtained before Whirlwind can begin full scale mining operations is BLM's OK of the plan of operations, expected in May 2008. Approvals for construction of ventilation shafts on the Utah side of the Whirlwind property and for site air emissions have already been received from the appropriate authorities.
- U.S. Energy Corp., after announcing it had disposed of all its uranium assets to Uranium One Inc. and would concentrate on exploration, development and production at the Lucky Jack molybdenum property on Mt. Emmons near Crested Butte, Colo., pulled the plug on the controversial moly mine at the end of March. The project was being developed in partnership with Kobex Resources Ltd., and the partners anticipated submission of a formal plan of operations to the U.S. Forest Service by the end of the third quarter of 2008. Following receipt of an $18.5-million construction loan, U.S. Energy has also commenced construction of a $26-million, 216-unit multifamily housing complex in Gillette, Wyoming.
- American Uranium Corp. has completed a formal resource calculation for its Reno Creek deposit in northeast Wyoming's Powder River Basin. The calculation was based on analysis of the original logs for 1,083 holes drilled by previous owners of the property, which was extensively explored between the 1970s and mid-1990s. The property covers 2,400 acres midway between AREVA's idled Christensen Ranch in situ leaching recovery (ISL) operation and Cameco's producing Smith Ranch ISL facility 30 miles to the south. American Uranium's CEO commented, "We were very pleasantly surprised to find the actual Reno Creek resource is 10.8 million pounds of U3O8 — more than twice our previous estimate." Permitting is now under way. Work scheduled for 2008 includes installation of groundwater monitor wells to obtain necessary geologic and hydrologic information, reserve analysis of the mineralized fronts, preliminary well field design, and engineering design of a centralized and/or satellite in-situ recovery system.
- Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. announced plans in December to proceed with the restart of the Climax Molybdenum Mine near Leadville, Colo. The initial $500-million project involves the restart of open pit mining and the construction of new state-of-the-art milling facilities. Annual production is expected to be approximately 30 million pounds of molybdenum beginning in 2010, at estimated cash costs of approximately $3.50 per pound. Freeport-McMoRan will also evaluate a second phase of the Climax project that could potentially double future production to 60 million pounds.
- White Energy Co. Ltd. of Sydney, Australia, has entered into a development agreement with NRG Power Marketing LLC (a subsidiary of NRG Energy Inc.) and Buckskin Mining Co. (a subsidiary of Kiewit Corp.) to complete a detailed feasibility study to evaluate the economic, technical and logistical viability of constructing a plant capable of producing at least 1 million tons of binderless coal briquettes at the Buckskin Mine near Gillette, Wyo. Pilot tests have indicated the mine produces a sub-bituminous coal ideal for upgrading through the White Energy process. According to the company, "White Energy is committed to delivering cleaner coal technologies with a view to ultimately achieving zero-emission targets." It is actively seeking opportunities to deploy its technology in markets around the world.
- Banking on its faith in continued viability of the Powder River Basin coal market, the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad has begun efforts to condemn 1,200 linear acres of property in northeastern Wyoming to build more than 120 miles of new rail line into the Powder River Basin from South Dakota. Railroad lawyers argued in federal court that the company has spent 10 years planning the extension project and has pending plans to merge with Canadian Pacific, a well-financed railroad company (which wants the DM&E primarily for the line into the coal mining district). Landowners in the extension's path countered that DM&E's proposal doesn't justify condemning private property.