Is coal the new gold? A Pennsylvania senate candidate thinks so

“There’s coal in them thar hills.” If that sounds like a confused reference to the 1849 California gold rush, think again. Long-ignored coal deposits in eastern Pennsylvania have become a key part of President Trump’s pledge to revitalize American mining and to once again produce critical materials needed for our national defense.

Trump’s Department of Energy is working with Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican representing the district where coal was once king. Barletta, who’s running for the U.S. Senate this year, is leading a new push to extract and process so-called rare earth elements (REEs), a collection of 17 metals and minerals essential to building jet engines, rocket launchers, GPS systems, high-power magnets, I-phones, and just about any other device that’s smarter than its user.

America was once the undisputed leader in supplying REEs to the world. During the past 30 years, that role was intentionally ceded to China, which now produces more than 90 percent of the worldwide supply of critical materials – and can cut off that supply at will.

While past U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democrat, passively allowed China to dominate REE production, President Trump last month signed an executive order to ensure reliable supplies of materials critical to national defense projects. The only way to do that is to make them ourselves.

“This is something I’ve had my eye on for the past two years, especially with President Trump highlighting his goal to bring coal production back to the United States,” Barletta told me. “It’s in complete contrast to President Obama.”

That’s because Obama and Hillary Clinton viewed coal, and its by-products, as dangerous to the environment. But with vastly more modern technology, Barletta says, the black rock that, literally, supports his congressional district can be both clean and very profitable.

High concentrations of rare earths have been found in the anthracite coal deposits of Pennsylvania. If those can be extracted, separated – the 17 REEs are often found fused together – and processed, America will be poised to compete with China, while strengthening our own national security.

Barletta, who plans to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, has been criss-crossing the Keystone state with a simple message: yes, we can. “It’s hard to get people to listen,” he concedes. “They roll their eyes and say ‘Ugh, we’re not going back to those days.’ But then I explain that this is a new day for coal, especially anthracite, and how we can use it for manufacturing, and just as important, for our own national defense. And now, people are beginning to want to talk about it.”

The most encouraging development: the Energy Department survey of Barletta’s district found high levels of scandium, a particularly valuable rare earth that sells for more than $2,000 per kilo.

“This is a real eyebrow-raiser in the world of material science,” says Dan McGroarty, a member of the advisory board of Texas Mineral Resources Corp., and a rare earth expert who has testified before congress on critical materials. Texas Mineral is part of the consortium that last year won a $1 million government grant to figure out how to extract Pennsylvania’s underground wealth.

McGroarty believes that new technologies can recover, separate and process REEs from long-abandoned coal mines, like those around Hazelton, without environmental damage.

“When China is selling 90 percent of REEs to the world and we’re finding it right here at home, we need to be comatose not to realize what our future holds,” Barletta says. “As I go around the commonwealth to talk about this, and I mention China, all of a sudden, people’s ears perk up.”

Now all he has to do is convince Pennsylvania’s voters.