Side Effects Include… A Rare Opportunity for Pennsylvania

We’ve all seen the ubiquitous drug commercials on television that peddle the latest pill but list seemingly endless “common side effects” of taking it.  You wonder if the cure might be worse than the disease.

There’s an echo of those commercials coming from, of all places, the World Bank on—of all subjects—global climate disruption.  Some of the essential medicines needed to reduce our global fever, the Bank warns, would create environmental problems of their own.

The climate cure—which we’re not taking in nearly adequate doses—is certainly not worse than the disease or its side-effect case of U.S. mental illness. But as this Financial Times story reports, the World Bank sounds a lot like a pesky drug commercial announcer:  

A transition from fossil fuels to mitigate the impacts of climate change will require large amounts of metals and rare earth elements that could create environmental challenges… The mining or extraction of metals and rare earth elements could create environmental problems in terms of energy, water and land use… and “carries potentially significant impacts for local ecosystems, water systems, and communities.”

Rare earth elements are used in batteries, renewable energy technologies, and other electronics. They comprise a $5 billion global market (149,000 tonnes of material per year), of which the U.S. consumes around 11 percent of the total, or $550 million (16,000 tonnes). All of these numbers will grow rapidly out of climate necessity.  So will the environmental impacts the World Bank talks about.

And it gets worse.  The U.S. has become reliant on imports of rare earth elements, primarily from China, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report. The economic and national security headaches of that reliance will grow with our demand.

But Pennsylvania may have the potential to provide rare earth medicine in ways that reduce or avoid some of the side effects.

Rare earth elements are found in coal veins, as well as in coal waste, both of which we happen to have a lot of in Pennsylvania. Getting at these materials requires re-mining existing coal veins and reclaiming coal refuse areas—skills Pennsylvania is very good at, too.

The problems have been identifying commercially viable quantities of the material and developing more cost-effective and environmentally friendly extraction methods.  Ongoing work by the National Energy Technology Laboratory suggests the economic potential is there.  New research has identified promising processing solutions. And last month, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the award of $6.9 million in funding for additional research–including a project in Pennsylvania.

So, if economical extraction techniques can be perfected, Pennsylvania can become a domestic source of rare earth elements. If mining is then done smartly—with the right public policies helping to shape this emerging new industry—rare earth element development could become a big part of a just energy transition in Pennsylvania.  Side effects would include climate protection, land reclamation, water quality improvement, economic development, community revitalization, renewable energy development, and enhanced national security.

John Quigley

Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center
John Quigley is a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center and previously served on the Center’s Advisory Board. He served as Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection and of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.