Satellite image of the Mountain Pass, Calif., rare earths mine, formerly owned by Molycorp.

Trump Urged by CEO to Nationalize the Only US Rare-Earths Mine

July 19, 2017
The rare-earth mining operations in Mountain Pass, Calif., the last remaining assets of bankrupt Molycorp Inc., were bought in June by a group that drew objections from rival bidders, who said the winner has ties to the Chinese government.

The head of an advanced-materials manufacturer said he met with President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, on Monday to persuade him that the U.S. should nationalize the country’s only mine of rare earth minerals, which are used in military applications.

“The staff understood the urgency of the matter,” Michael Silver, chief executive officer of closely held American Elements Corp., said in a phone interview after his White House meeting, which he said was also attended by presidential deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

The rare-earth mining operations in Mountain Pass, Calif., the last remaining assets of bankrupt Molycorp Inc., were bought in June by a group that drew objections from rival bidders, who said the winner has ties to the Chinese government.

The mine should be converted to a national laboratory “dedicated to rebuilding America’s rare-earth mining industry so the world knows it is safe to build high-tech manufacturing plants in the U.S.,” Silver said.

The production of rare-earth minerals -- used in applications from hybrid electric cars to iPhones and military hardware such as night-vision goggles and guided weapons -- is dominated by low-cost Chinese companies. Molycorp Minerals and its parent, Molycorp Inc., filed for bankruptcy in 2015 after prices for the minerals fell below the mine’s costs to produce them.

Silver said he was invited to brief the president on the issue on Tuesday. The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Eminent Domain Acquisition

Silver said he’s proposing the U.S. government apply the Takings Clause of the 5th Amendment and acquire Mountain Pass by eminent domain.

Any attempt to make the mine commercially viable would fail because no one can compete with China, which accounts for almost all the world’s rare-earth production, Silver said.

“The perception is the only place in the world you can go for reasonably priced rare earth materials for your product is in China,” he said. “You have to change that perception.”

Los Angeles-based American Elements manufactures metals and chemicals and has a catalog of more than 15,000 products, according to its website. Silver said his company did business with Molycorp before its Mountain Pass became idle. Silver was among the first Americans to set up a production and distribution supply chain from rare earth mines in Inner Mongolia and China to North America and Europe, according to documents on the company website.

Creditor Feud

The sale of Molycorp’s last remaining assets to one of two groups of creditors that had feuded over the facility was approved after complaints that the winning bidder, which is majority-owned by JHL Capital Group LLC and QVT Financial LP, had recruited an affiliate of Shenghe Resources Holding Co., which allegedly is tied to the Chinese government.

The Chinese mining company, Leshan Shenghe Rare Earth Co., owns nearly 10% of the business that took over the mine and mineral rights, MP Mine Operations LLC, according to court records. Leshan’s stake doesn’t give it voting rights, MP Mine said in the filing.

JHL Capital founder James Litinsky, who has been helping lead the effort to revive the mine, declined to comment.

Efforts to reopen Mountain Pass have been hampered by a two-year fight for control of the assets between a group of low-ranking noteholders, led by JHL, and distressed debt giant Oaktree Capital Management LP.

Molycorp went into bankruptcy while trying to perfect an advanced, experimental ore processing system that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Oaktree provided the loans that funded that system and got ownership of it under a compromise in bankruptcy court that split up the company’s assets.

Oaktree owns the most advanced ore-processing equipment at the mine, while JHL and QVT control the most important mineral rights at the site.

By Sally Bakewell and Steven Church

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