Forum Editorial: Here’s another way ND won the mineral lottery. The state can’t squander its advantages.

The state Geological Survey believes North Dakota has the highest level of critical minerals in North American coal deposits — and North Dakota’s lignite reserve is estimated at 25 billion tons.

Editorial FSA

It’s long been said that North Dakota’s lignite coal reserves will last 800 years at current rates of consumption. The coal is delivered to nearby power plants to generate electricity.

North Dakota’s lignite has long been regarded as low grade — low enough that it isn’t economical to ship long distances, which explains why the mines are located near the power plants.

But recent discoveries demonstrate that west-central North Dakota harbors deposits of lignite and associated mudstone that are rich in rare earth elements and critical minerals, including lithium, a key component of batteries including those to power the rapidly growing electric vehicle market.

The minerals are sprinkled in tiny quantities among deposits within outcroppings spread over 340-square miles in the richly colored Bear Den Member of the Golden Valley Formation, which was laid down 56 million years ago when west-central North Dakota was a tropical swampland.

That thin dispersal of riches makes mining and processing the minerals a significant challenge.


North Dakota is well positioned, however, to exploit the critical minerals, which have significant support from the federal government, which is working to decrease dependence on foreign countries that aren’t necessarily friendly, including China.

Since 2015, the North Dakota Geological Survey has been exploring for promising deposits of critical minerals — those deemed critical by the federal government — and now has come out with a development plan, essentially a roadmap that pinpoints rich deposits that could be mined commercially.

How rich are these deposits? The federal government has determined that deposits with concentrations of 300 parts per million or greater are commercially viable.

North Dakota geologists have taken 1,700 samples from 300 locations, with the richest deposits found in a 30-foot horizon that has consistently yielded deposits greater than 600 parts per million — and as high as 2,570 parts per million.

The North Dakota Geological Survey believes that is the highest level of critical minerals to be found in North American coal deposits — and North Dakota’s lignite reserve is estimated at 25 billion tons.

As Gov. Doug Burgum has often said, North Dakota won the mineral lottery. The potential to mine rare earth elements and critical minerals is yet another manifestation of that bounty — and it presents a golden opportunity to diversify the lignite industry, which is threatened by concerns of burning climate-warming fossil fuels.

Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, has told legislators that critical minerals could turn into an industry worth billions of dollars .

So far, North Dakota has established itself as the leader among coal-producing states in exploring the potential of critical minerals.


The North Dakota Geological Survey’s extensive mapping work continues, boosted by a $500,000 appropriation that will also allow it to hire a fourth geologist to help with exploration. The next round of studies will focus on another layer in additional counties.

The appropriation for critical minerals development, which totals $1.5 million, also includes money for research at the University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center.

Another group of UND researchers at the Institute for Energy Studies is vying for a federal grant that would allow construction of a commercial-scale processing plant, which is crucial for developing a viable industry.

North Dakota leaders in the governor’s office and Legislature have shown foresight in helping position the state as a leader in the emerging industry for critical minerals, a key component of the transition to clean energy sources.

The state must do everything it can to stay on top of what could become a significant future source of jobs and revenues.

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