California’s Mountain Pass mine, the sole significant developed source for rare earths elements in the U.S., will go on the auction block in March, according to papers filed in late January in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Del.
Up for sale is land and some equipment at the mine which cost former owner Molycorp, Inc. roughly $1 billion to develop, according to the court. Mineral rights at the site belong to an entity called Secured Natural Resources LLC, which is owned by creditors of Molycorp including JHL Capital Group LLC.
The open-pit mining operation was part of Molycorp’s plan to have both production and processing capability for rare earths, at a time when prices were high (early in this decade)… but as our Rare Earths MMI chart shows, prices have been flat for eight consecutive months now and low for much, much longer. The prices of the 2011 rare earths market, strongly affected by Chinese supply disruptions, appear to be nothing more than a distant memory at this point.
A switch in trade policy in early 2015 — prompted by losing a World Trade Organization case — ended export quotas placed on Chinese producers effectively killed any chance Molycorp had to compete based on costs of production. Molycorp’s rare earths processing business, with operations mainly in Asia, emerged from the bankruptcy as the core of a reorganized company, Neo Performance Materials, but Mountain Pass and its high cost of production were left behind in the reorganization.
According to the Wall Street Journal, a Swiss investment fund linked to Russian-born billionaire Vladimir Iorich is part of a buyout group that has made an offer to take over Mountain Pass. Pala Investments Ltd., Iorich’s investment firm, is a partner in a buyout group’s $40 million offer for the assets. Joining Pala is Novatrek Capital GmbH, a private-equity firm founded by Pala alumnus Joseph Belan, as well as Sole Source Capital of Los Angeles, according to filings with the bankruptcy court.
Efforts to sell Mountain Pass out of bankruptcy had struggled because the mine carries with it national security concerns, due to its ability to produce rare earths for high-tech military equipment, and might catch the eye of international trade regulators. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or CFIUS, is likely to take an interest in new owners, according to courtroom discussions during the bankruptcy case, the Wall Street Journal reported. CFIUS is an interagency body tasked with reviewing transactions that could result in control of a U.S. business by a foreign person to determine if the deal would have affect the national security of the U.S.