By Kevin Killough, energy reporter
A new mine project near Green River will tap into the world’s largest soda ash deposit and potentially help satisfy the green movement’s growing demand for electric vehicles and solar panels.
WE Soda Ltd., a subsidiary of British-based Ciner Resources company, announced its plans Wednesday, but the project will need to navigate the federal permitting process before operations can begin. That could take several years or more.
Oguz Erkan, president and CEO of Ciner Company, told Cowboy State Daily that, among many other products, soda ash is used in solar panels and electric vehicle (EV) batteries. With a growing push for EV cars and solar farm buildout across the world, the demand for soda ash is rising rapidly.
In 2019, annual demand for soda ash was about 58 million tons and by 2021, that jumped to 63 million tons. Estimates show that the world will be short about 12 million tons of future soda ash demand.
The mine area holds the largest soda ash deposit in the world — a 2,000 year supply — and the company wants to tap into global demand to get ahead of international competition as the demand for the product grows.
China already produces the most soda ash in the world, more than double the United States. Russia comes in a distant third, producing about a third of what America does.
Because of high natural gas prices and carbon taxes, it’s difficult to produce soda ash in Europe, Erkan said, so the main competition is from China and other Asian countries.
Erkan said the Wyoming mine, which the company is calling Project West, has the potential to produce 3 million tons to start and is scalable, so the company can increase production later.
To facilitate soda ash exports, the company received a permit to export 14 million tons from a Stockton, California, port terminal.
Erkan said the Green River project will create 300 permanent jobs and mine construction will create 1,500 to 2,000 temporary jobs. Another 400 to 500 indirect jobs will be created.
Before any of those jobs are realized, the company will need to get permission from the federal government. The permitting process includes an environmental impact statement, which takes on average four years and is one part of the process. Some mines can take a decade to permit, but Ekran said production at Project West is expected to start by 2030.
“This is where the support is needed, not for us but for any project. Because of the fact that if we can do this and get everybody behind it, these projects will be done very, very quickly,” Erkan said.
Erkan said he is confident the company will be successful in getting its permits and meeting the 2030 timeframe.
“If I can permit this thing in California, I think we’ll be able to do it everywhere else,” Erkan said.
The mining will be done with an in-situ process to extract soda ash from trona ore. The ore is then processed into soda ash.
Trona that contains commercially viable concentrations of soda ash occurs in only three regions of the world. Besides Wyoming, Turkey has a large deposit and China has a smaller one.
Almost all the soda ash produced in China is done through a chemical- and water-intensive synthetic process at trona mines with weaker concentrations of soda ash, and that process is more expensive than the type of mining that will be done in Wyoming.
Erkan said the project will recycle a lot of the water it uses, which will allow the company to reduce the amount of water it uses over time and keep water usage below that of conventional mines.
The company also wants to use green energy to power the mine, but Ekran said that it’s very difficult to have 100% renewable energy on a mine.