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Pine Creek revival on cards as NT discovers two critical minerals

David Prestipino -

Exploration is on the horizon for two new critical minerals discovered near a remote Northern Territory town crippled by an iron ore mine closure.

Applications for the Territory government's latest round of funding to advance mineral exploration opened this week, with half of the $3 million funding pool for projects targeting commodities on the NT's critical minerals list, which recently hit 17 after the discovery of gallium and rare earth graphite deposits in Pine Creek, a small town in the Katherine region of about 320 residents.

Now a notable tourist spot, Pine Creek was devastated by the closure in 2014 of the Frances Creek iron ore mine, the town's main employer, with its population shrinking to below 350 and key businesses closing.

In 2019 the Federal Court recognised the strongest form of Native Title over most of Pine Creek, a town 225km south-east of Darwin initially founded on gold mining.

After 20 years of negotiations, two claim groups - the Wagiman and the Jawoyn Bolmo, Matjba and Wurrkbarbar - hold exclusive Native Title rights over almost all of Pine Creek's 12sqm of land, giving them equal rights as private land owners.

NT Mining Minister Mark Monaghan said the newly-discovered rare earth deposits in Pine Creek presented a huge economic opportunity for the Territory to be a lead player in the global renewable energy transition, as demand for critical minerals grew rapidly across the world.

"The Northern Territory is standing at the helm of a global critical minerals surge, and we have the opportunity to become a leading supplier," he said, adding there was "high potential for a further 12" critical minerals to be identified across the NT.

A spokesperson for Minister Monaghan confirmed the area where the two new critical minerals were found was Pine Creek, and there was as yet no requirement to notify relevant Native Title bodies. 

In 2020 around 300,000 tonnes of stockpiled ore was exported from the Frances Creek mine after it was taken over by Linecrest.

The company said at the time future mining was viable if iron ore prices held, with most of the initial stockpile sent to customers in Vietnam and South Korea.

Mineral exploration expenditure in the NT reached a record high of $74.4m in the 2023 September quarter, up 30 per cent on the previous year, with NT mineral production valued at $4.86 billion last year and the industry employing 4,400 people.

Gallium is a silver-white metal used in integrated circuits, lasers and LEDs, while graphite is mainly used to produce EV batteries and stationary energy storage systems.

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