Rare Earth Mineral Deposits In West Texas Could Give The U.S. A Military Edge

Round Top Mountain in Hudspeth County contains deposits of minerals used in smartphones and in high-tech military technology. Some locals want to mine the mountain, while others worry they won’t benefit.

By Jonathan HirschApril 18, 2017 11:11 am| ,

The Trump administration hasn’t minced words about its ‘America First’ policy. It extends to specific areas of industry, including energy.

“American Energy dominance will be declared a strategic, economic, and foreign policy goal of the united states, it’s about time,” President Donald Trump said.

One project looking to get a boost from the federal government is in Hudspeth County, in far west Texas. A rich source of what are called rare earth minerals has been discovered there inside Round Top Mountain.

Rare earth minerals are used to make loudspeakers, hard drives, smart phones and even U.S. military technology. Right now, about 97 percent of rare earth minerals are extracted in China. And that doesn’t exactly square with the goal of energy independence for the U.S.

Dan Gorski is the CEO of Texas Rare Minerals Corporation and it’s clear he loves his work.

“I was a born geologist. I guess [you know that] when you’re licking rocks as a kid,” Gorski says.

We drive down rocky mining roads towards Round Top Mountain, a site Gorski hopes will be the center of a massive rare earth mineral excavation operation here in west Texas. Its craggy surface juts out from the high desert vistas that surround the area.

“You might say that we are in the corporate offices right now,” Gorski says.

Gorski points out where future housing developments for workers could go and how water and other resources could be funneled to the area. He says the site could produce as many as 250 skilled-labor jobs – that’s nearly half the population of the nearby town of Sierra Blanca. Gorski lived in west Texas in the 1960s, and he remembers how it used to be.

“Sierra Blanca was a little jewel box a nice little railroad ranching town and now it’s it’s boarded up you know tumbleweeds blowing down the street,” he says. “And we’d like to see that change.”

Gorski says that change could have a ripple effect beyond Hudspeth County. The company’s profits could be tapped by the state of Texas, since Round Top Mountain is on state-owned land. Money derived from the land goes into a statewide fund for public education.

But not everyone in town sees Gorski’s vision as a good one for the area. After all, it’s not the first time outsiders have promised to revitalize. The area has been eyed for several dumping sites, from nuclear waste to sewage from other states. Locals fought those projects.

Wayne West is a Hudspeth County Commissioner. He’s lived in Sierra Blanca his whole life.

“I had to basically break myself into being a nuclear physicist, with a low radioactive disposal place, which was also my backyard,” West says. “I also dealt with New York City sludge which was also my backdoor.”

We meet at the sheriff’s office, just off Main Street in town. West is a heavy-set guy with a big smile, with a gap right in the middle.

“Apologize I got two teeth comin in next week,” he says.

West says state and federal agencies often overlook Sierra Blanca. And while he welcomes the opportunity for new jobs in the region, too often he says the beneficiary of big natural resource contracts is the state.

“Who’s reaping the benefits of this? The question I need to hear is what can the state of Texas do for Hudspeth County? Not what can Hudspeth County do for the state of Texas,” West says.

West says safety is another concern.

“Some of my constituents are concerned about exposure to this substance that’s supposed to be lighter than air,” he says. “You know, will that cause an increased risk in cancer?

The truth is, those impacts are unclear.

Meanwhile, Gorski says his company could go into production very soon, but would need assurances that the government is ready to invest in a domestic supply of rare earth minerals.

One reason it could be important is that if the relationship between the U.S. and China deteriorates, Gorski says, keeping U.S. military technology competitive could be much harder without access to rare earth minerals.

“We basically are talking about shooting lightning bolts at the Chinese and having to buy the stuff from the Chinese that make the lightning bolts,” Gorski says.

That’s because rare earth minerals are used for a lot more than just hard drives and mobile devices.

“[Rare earth minerals are in] guided bombs to…of course everybody’s now talking about laser technology,” Gorski says.

That’s laser technology for which the government has sourced materials from across the globe to produce. But with the Trump administration promising to make domestic energy a top priority, Gorski hopes the U.S. will begin using rare earth minerals that are sourced a little closer to home.

“We were looking eyeball to eyeball with extinction if things hadn’t changed politically in Washington,” he says. “All we’re looking for is a chance to compete with the rest of the world.”

It’s a chance Gorski says the Trump administration will help his company have.