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Otero Mesa; Fight Over Rare Earths Threatens a Desert Bio-Gem

An essential mineral ingredient used in a variety of electronics from cell phones to smart bombs could be a death knell for a pristine part of a wild New Mexico desert grassland coveted by environmentalists—and considered sacred to Native Americans.

That ingredient—rare earth elements—is at the heart of a recent battle to protect one of the crown jewels of the southwest, the Otero Mesa, a unique desert environment that sits atop one of the largest untapped fresh water aquifers in the state.  

Check out this beautifully shot video from NRDC’s Journey Onearth producer Roshini Thinakaran and cameraman/editor Zackary Wenning as they explore the fight over protecting the Otero Mesa.  

The Otero Mesa is home to coyote, wolves, black-tailed prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope and endangered songbirds. It’s a remote grasslands area that was the subject of an intense fight to protect the area from oil and gas industry development during the George W. Bush Administration.

But now hard rock mining has come knocking on the Otero Mesa, driven by the burgeoning high-tech global demand for rare earth minerals widely used in electronics and new technologies. One company, Geovic Mining, is expected to start surveying operations this summer along the tallest peak in the area, Wind Mountain.

Initial government surveys suggest the concentration of rare earth minerals is low compared to other areas being mined. According to the data available now, NRDC geologist Briana Mordick says it would take 10,000 grams of rock to get just 2-7 grams of rare earth elements Numbers like that, locals say, could threaten the entire mountain with destruction and create a massive waste disposal problem. 

But it’s not just the destruction of this desert landscape, sensitive animal habitat and groundwater supplies that worries locals.  Native American petroglyphs also were carved into the rock of Wind Mountain by tribes that roamed the land long before settlers pushed into these remote desert areas. Tribal leaders, historians and environmentalists are prodding the Obama Administration to declare the Wind Mountain area a National Monument to protect the important history and culture of the region.

Larry Shea of the nearby Mescalero Apache Advocates for the Otero Mesa is fighting to keep these ancestral grounds from being destroyed. “We hold this area somewhat in a sacred sense for our people who have utilized this area as a place of refuge,” Shea told Journey OnEarth.

As the development fight over the Otero Mesa rolls on, dust storms blow tumbleweeds across the desert landscape, ricocheting off boulders adorned with fading Apache petroglyphs. Beneath these rocks, the search for rare earth elements may represent the end of this bio-gem world as we know it, a high-tech coup d’état for a remarkable environment that for now remains virtually untouched since time began.


Rocky Kistner's picture

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Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on May 31, 2012 7:20 am GMT

You can see a list of rare earths and their uses here. They are used for various high tech components, advanced alloys, lasers, magnets, nuclear batteries, superconductors, and so on.

I’m working on a case study/briefing to explain ‘rare earths’ in a general sense and give them more context, (though it is still a work in progress). Here’s one description of what they actually are that I liked:

The name, rare earth element, is a misnomer. The elements are far more abundant than many precious minerals. Yet their dispersion means they are rarely found in economically viable quantities. There are 17 REEs – 15 lanthanides, and scandium and yttrium. The 15 lanthanide elements occupy atomic numbers 57 to 71 on the periodic table. The similarity of their chemical properties, demonstrated by their close proximity on the table, makes them very difficult to separate. Their extraction is capital- and skill- intensive [which is why they are called ‘rare’].

Phillip Greene's picture
Phillip Greene on Jul 6, 2012 7:38 am GMT

Rare Earths are an essential ingredient of a whole host of electronics including batteries for electric vehicles, night vision glasses used by the military, guidance systems for rocket weaponry and more. China has tried to gain a monoply on them but Iceland has found it had a large deposit of them amounting to about 25% of the world’s supply. They are supposedly not particularly scarce but the US has only one mine for them in California which may not even be producing at this time. We need to gear up a substantial effort to find these materials and soon. Destroying a rare historic area for so small supply seems like a poor choice.

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