Wyoming could reap billions from metals

LARAMIE — At a time when many are calling for Wyoming to diversify its economy away from natural resources, a state geologist believes the state is sitting on a gold mine of precious metals that could be its economic salvation.

Gold, silver, diamonds, rubies and strategically important minerals such as platinum and palladium — all are abundant in Wyoming and could contribute mightily to the state’s economy, said W. Dan Hausel of the Wyoming Geological Survey.

“There is, I think, a tremendous potential to diversify our economy, and this is something the state ought to be looking at,” Hausel said in a recent interview.

Hausel, a senior economic geologist with the Geological Survey, is collaborating with Dave Miller and Wayne Sutherland on a paper for the Wyoming Geological Association titled “Economic Diversification through Mineral Resources,” which highlights the economic potential of Wyoming’s rich untapped mineral deposits.

“We thought we could point out ways to diversify the economy through our natural mineral resources,” he said.

Wyoming leads the nation in producing coal, uranium, soda ash and bentonite, but it also could gain national recognition for its gold, silver and copper, its strategic minerals such as platinum and palladium and its precious gemstones, such as diamonds and rubies. Throw in iron, nickel, zinc, vanadium, titanium and phosphate as well as other platinum-group metals and chromium, and you’re talking mineral wealth, Hausel said.

In fact, if you took all the proven deposits of metals in Wyoming, they would be valued in the billions of dollars, he said.

One copper- and silver-ore deposit near Cody is valued at $2.1 billion and would provide almost $250 million in tax revenue, plus many high-paying jobs.

And that’s just one of several giant copper-silver deposits in the region, Hausel said.

“If you compare that to most other businesses in Wyoming, that’s a pretty good return for the state, and it also helps stimulate the economy,” Hausel said. “I can’t think of many businesses that would have that big an effect on Wyoming.”

Other mineral-bearing rocks are found near Cheyenne, in the Snowy Range and Sierra Madres of southern Wyoming and the Rattlesnake Hills west of Casper, where Hausel made the initial gold discovery in 1981.

Diamonds could be one of Wyoming’s best fiends in the future as well. So far, the only commercial operation is the Kelsey Lake diamond mine on the Colorado-Wyoming border that contains an estimated $270 million in diamonds, but the potential exists for other discoveries.

“The more we look, the more we find,” Hausel said, adding that diamond mining could lead to value-added industries such as diamond cutting and polishing that could enhance the value of a gemstone by 100 times. (See the Survey’s Web site at www.wsgsweb.uwyo.edu/metals/metals.htm.)

Hausel said that it will take years to prove these occurrences, as this is a long and involved process, and funding is in very short supply. However, he said the returns could be substantial as witnessed by Canada, where similar government-sponsored research led to a new, multi-billion-dollar diamond industry beginning in 1998.

Platinum and palladium deposits in the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre mountain ranges represent another huge opportunity because both minerals are in high demand and 90 percent of the world’s supply is in South Africa and Russia.

Even iron ore, once a mainstay of the state’s mining industry, could make a comeback. For example, when U.S. Steel closed its Atlantic City Iron Mine near South Pass in the early 1980s, only 90 million tons of some 300 million tons of deposits had been mined.

While there is little likelihood of another huge mine/mill complex being built at Atlantic City, there is potential for lower-cost, smaller-scale operations, Hausel said.

Ironically, much of Wyoming’s mineral wealth has been known for 20, 30, 40 years, but they have not been developed because of a number of factors, Hausel said. Economics, government overregulation, environmental concerns, access problems and difficulty getting capitalization all come into play.

“No question, there’s always economic factors,” he said. “Prices for precious metals are down except for platinum/palladium, and cost of mining is up.

But one major obstacle, he said, has been the federal government, which controls much of Wyoming’s mineral wealth and continues to place roadblocks in the path of mineral development.

“A lot of companies won’t operate in the U.S. anymore” because of federal mining policies, he said.

Still, if those hurdles can be surmounted, Wyoming’s mineral wealth gives the state unique potential and opportunity, Hausel said.