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The U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Resources Program Five-Year Plan, 2006-2010

Five-year goals

Research and Assessments

Long-term goal 1: Ensure availability of up-to-date quantitative assessments of potential for undiscovered mineral deposits

Five-year goals:

  1. Complete quantitative global mineral resource assessment for copper, potash, and platinum group elements (approximately $2.5 million/year through FY 2009, decreasing to $1.25 million in FY 2010)
  2. Meet Federal land managers' need for timely mineral resource information (in central Colorado: approximately $2 million/year through FY 2007, then approximately $500,000 in FY 2008; in next identified priority area, approximately $1.6 million in FY 2008, increasing to about $2 million in FY 2009 and FY 2010)
  3. Conduct research targeted at reducing uncertainty in mineral resource assessments (approximately $7.5 million/year)
  4. Begin consultation, planning, and data gathering required to update the 1995 National Mineral Resource Assessment (approximately $100,000 in FY 2009, increasing to $750,000 in FY 2010)

Making wise choices that lead to a secure supply of mineral commodities requires information regarding the locations, quality, and quantity of resources. MRP provides unbiased earth science information, culminating in quantitative mineral resource assessments, to address challenges in securing mineral resource supplies for the United States and to address the minerals-related 17 information needs of other Federal agencies. Much of the early work of preparing for an assessment, no matter what the scale, involves research that results in reliable basic data required to understand the geologic history and characteristics of the area to be assessed. With these data in hand, interdisciplinary teams of experts analyze everything available with a goal of identifying characteristics suggestive of undiscovered mineral deposits and offering clues to location, quality, and quantity of undiscovered deposits.

Diagram of MRP information used in mineral resource assessments.
Modern mineral resource assessments rely on integration of fundamental geologic data, mineral deposit models, expert analysis, and statistical modeling. The result is quantitative information that can be used as part of economic and other policy analyses.

Both scientists and decision makers are challenged by the uncertainty associated with the current state-of-the-art in mineral resource assessments. For this reason, MRP funds considerable research aimed at reducing uncertainty. Among the sources of uncertainty in amounts of economic resources are: number of undiscovered deposits, possible locations of these deposits, and possible grades and tonnages of the deposits. To reduce uncertainty in spatial locations and 18 probability of occurrence of undiscovered resources, MRP will conduct regional geologic and/or metallogenic studies of significant mineralized terranes. Present assessments delineate lands based on geologic settings that are small on a national basis but broad from the standpoint of local land management. This research is aimed at reducing the spatial uncertainty of resource locations in order to improve stewardship of public lands and resources.

A second type of uncertainty underlying quantitative mineral resource assessments is uncertainty in genetic models for many types of mineral deposits. This uncertainty varies significantly amongst different deposit types and metallogenic provinces. These genetic factors include: (1) a lack of understanding of the sources of metals, ligands, and fluids that form the deposits, (2) the tectonic and structural controls on fluid flow, ranging from regional to deposit scales, (3) the phenomena driving fluid circulation, (4) the timing and duration of deposit formation, and (5) phenomena that control the concentration of metals in ore-forming fluids and the mechanisms by which these metals are precipitated. To reduce the uncertainty in the genetic models of mineral deposits used for quantitative mineral resource assessments, MRP will conduct genetic studies of important deposit types and their geologic environments, using the priorities outlined on page 16.

Modern assessments are quantitative and estimate quantities, values, and locations of undiscovered mineral resources in a form that conveys both economic viability and uncertainty associated with the resources. Unbiased information on the distribution of undiscovered mineral resources is needed in order to understand the consequences of their possible exploitation. Although the USGS has been the world leader in quantitative estimation of undiscovered mineral resources, opportunities exist to make significant improvements with new and refined methodologies that can reduce the large uncertainties in the estimates.

The fundamental ingredients of undiscovered mineral resource estimation are the number of deposits, their grades and tonnages, and their locations. For many deposit types, general locations and grades and tonnages have been fairly well captured by proper use of mineral deposit models, including grade and tonnage models. Estimating numbers of undiscovered mineral deposits has been less completely specified. Emerging research demonstrates that estimates can be based on frequencies of deposits per unit of permissive area in control areas 19 (mineral deposit density models) in the same way that grade and tonnage frequencies are models of sizes and qualities of undiscovered deposits. Planned research, including work on new deposit density models with stochastic processes and spatial distributions of deposits, offers tools for increasing specification of these estimates.

Because most undiscovered resources in the United States (and many other countries) are not exposed at the earth's surface, it is necessary to explicitly address the added uncertainty in predicting locations of resources that lie under non-mineral bearing rocks, dense vegetation, or other types of cover. Research is needed to develop and test a system that can spatially predict geologic settings related to deposit types under cover based on geophysics and extrapolated geology and geochemistry. This work will necessarily rely on multivariate methods and perhaps probabilistic neural networks to estimate probabilities of different geologic settings associated with different deposit types. Research on structural or tectonic settings of mineral deposits by type is also needed to more specifically locate more likely sites of mineralization. The overall objective is to more accurately predict locations of undiscovered mineral resources.

Delineating possible locations of undiscovered mineral deposits requires the integration of disparate geologic data sets. This task has typically been done by experts because of the complexity of dealing with different scale maps, sampling densities, and kinds of data. Substantial research is needed for the seamless integration of disparate geologic data to make unbiased estimates in quantitative assessments.

Preliminary research suggests that perhaps the greatest opportunity for reducing uncertainty in assessments lies in lowering uncertainty associated with tonnage estimates of undiscovered deposits. Selecting the correct deposit model is the most important way of controlling errors because mineral deposit models are the best-known predictor of tonnage. Research is necessary on ways to reduce the tonnage uncertainty within deposit types in order to reduce the substantial uncertainty that remains when deposit type is known.

Another area in which there is considerable uncertainty is in assessments for scarce metals such as rare-earth elements, platinum, ruthenium, and indium. These metals are increasingly used in 20 new technologies such as advanced batteries and fuel cell electronic vehicles and in every-day devices such as cell phones, video monitors, and some diodes. The market for many of these rare metals is expected to grow at a high rate for the foreseeable future. Many of these metals are also critical raw materials for a number of developing alternative energy and information technology markets. The high demand for them is likely to result in constraints on the availability of some of these materials in coming years because there are presently few suppliers and therefore high prices of many of these materials. MRP research in industrial mineral commodities will transition toward understanding how deposits of these rare metals are formed and what characteristics they have that can be used in mineral resource assessments.

Successes in frontier technologies such as electronics and alternative energy production depend both on breakthrough research and on the availability of advanced materials. In order to identify which rare mineral materials might adversely affect success in advanced technology fields MRP intends to hold a workshop in FY 2006 where external technology experts will interact with internal USGS economic geologists. We expect to use this forum to identify the needs and opportunities where MRP can have a significant effect. The workshop in FY 2006 will be used to define new project proposals and guide their selection and start in FY 2007.

Research by MRP that reduces the uncertainty in mineral resource assessments will spur consideration of alternative geologic settings for all mineral materials and encourage increased diversity of supply and, as a result, help sustain prosperity and improve quality of life.

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