Alaska editorial: State seeks to promote strategic mineral work

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

A few hundred people gathered Nov. 29 in Fairbanks to talk about how Alaska can start producing some of the lesser-known but essential minerals used in many high-tech products.

The Alaska Strategic and Critical Minerals Summit, at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge, appears to have drawn a full house for the second year in a row. That’s encouraging. If Alaskans see some action after all the promotion, it will be more than encouraging — it will be rewarding.

Commissioner of Natural Resources Dan Sullivan told us Thursday that the state’s initiative, kicked off at last year’s conference, is producing useful information already. State geologists have been assessing “rare earth” minerals across the state, including good prospects in the Interior.

Most of the work is being done by Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys employees in Fairbanks. The Legislature provided $3 million across several years to boost the effort.

The information they develop will be public, and mining companies can use it to conduct initial evaluations of what might be economic to develop.

Sullivan said he believes there is “a lot of activity on the horizon” in the Interior.

Mining license taxes provide some revenue for state government but nothing on the scale of oil and gas royalties and taxes. The real value of mineral development is in economic activity and jobs, Sullivan said. The average yearly compensation for an employee at a large mine in Alaska is about $100,000, he noted.

Mines also pay millions of dollars in property taxes to municipalities or make voluntary impact payments to nearby communities.

Sullivan said his figures indicate about a third of U.S. exploration investment dollars were spent in Alaska last year. Much of the money was spent on the enormous Pebble project in southwest Alaska, he acknowledged, but, nevertheless, more than 30 projects had exploration budgets of $1 million or more.

Alaska still has just a few large producing mines. If the strategic minerals initiative can bring on a few more, it will be well worth the state initiative’s expense.

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