Nebraska niobium mine’s quest to raise a billion dollars gets boost from Trump administration

Nebraska niobium mine’s quest to raise a billion dollars gets boost from Trump administration
Soil samples containing niobium, which is used to harden steel, extracted from the depths at a proposed mine site near Elk Creek, Nebraska. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON — Calls from interested investors are pouring in to the company seeking to open a niobium mine in southeast Nebraska.

And the increased activity is thanks in part to Trump administration moves highlighting the national importance of critical minerals.

NioCorp Developments Ltd. has been working for years on the project that would pull niobium, scandium and titanium from the ground near Elk Creek.

The administration has identified all three of those elements as critical to U.S. economic and national security.

That has increased investor interest as the company seeks to raise a billion dollars in capital, according to Jim Sims, NioCorp’s vice president for external affairs.

“There’s no question that this process has helped our project by raising its visibility both in the states and internationally,” Sims told The World-Herald.

Sims was on Capitol Hill on Tuesday testifying at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing about the country’s increasing reliance on importing such critical minerals from other countries.

Last year, for example, the United States imported 100 percent of its supply of 21 such minerals, compared with 100 percent of just 11 minerals in 1997.

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order calling for federal agencies to address the situation. Toward that end, the Interior Department recently released a list of 35 “critical minerals” used in everything from rechargeable batteries to LCD screens.

A report is due later this year on additional steps to reduce reliance on imports of those minerals.

Tuesday’s hearing included debate about the role of environmental regulations in holding up domestic mining projects.

Sims touted his own company’s upfront efforts to reduce or eliminate environmental impacts, efforts he said have significantly limited the need to jump through federal hoops.

That’s why changes in federal permitting aren’t necessary for the viability of the Nebraska project, Sims said. And yet the ongoing discussion among policymakers has served to increase awareness of what they’re doing.

During the hearing, Sims ran lawmakers through the project and the minerals it targets.

Niobium is used to make steel stronger. Scandium does the same thing for aluminum, which allows for lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicles and aircraft. Titanium has a variety of applications, including in the defense industry.

Sims asked rhetorically how much niobium is produced in the United States.

“Zero,” he said. “We’re 100 percent reliant on foreign nations for niobium. The Elk Creek project will turn that around. We’re going to put the U.S. in a position of being a producer of niobium for the first time in U.S. history.”

He talked about Nebraska and the United States emerging as a “scandium superpower,” given that only 15 metric tons are produced globally now, but the new mine is expected to produce 100 metric tons per year.

In an interview, Sims talked up the economic boom that the project could be to the region.

He said he couldn’t give specifics about how close the project is to that required billion-dollar threshold.

“It just takes time,” Sims said. “These are investors that are looking to put in anywhere from a million to tens of millions to hundreds of millions. The due-diligence process that they do before they make that investment is very substantial. And it should be.”

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