Recently, President Trump announced a $1 trillion plan to fix the nation’s roads, bridges, dams, and airports. And while Congressional approval may hinge on the specifics of funding these projects, Americans should be concerned with whether the country can obtain sufficient metals and minerals to undertake such a large effort.
There’s no doubt that a robust plan to rebuild America’s declining infrastructure could spur activity and employment throughout the economy. And thankfully, America enjoys a particularly rich endowment of the copper, nickel, zinc, and other metals that serve as building blocks for new roads, bridges, and dams. But acquiring enough raw materials in a timely fashion may prove problematic since America’s mining operations are currently beset with a number of obstacles.
For starters, access to the mineral resources needed for infrastructure renewal could well be thwarted by conflicting and duplicative mine permit reviews conducted by multiple federal and state agencies. It currently takes seven to 10 years for companies to successfully obtain the necessary permits for a major new mining operation. Such delays have become the inevitable outgrowth of too many agencies moving too much paperwork too slowly. President Trump acknowledged this problem recently when he contrasted current permit delays with the comparatively brief five-year timespan needed to build the famed Hoover Dam. In the current mining environment, it would take more than five years simply to open new mines that could provide the requisite metals and materials for the dam itself.
Significantly, America is home to an estimated $6.2 trillion in minerals and metals reserves. But this advantage is compromised when companies face long delays to open new mining operations. This is all the more egregious when competitors in countries like Australia and Canada—with similar environmental standards—typically receive mining clearances in only two to three years.
An added hurdle for mining projects is former President Obama’s 2015 decision to further restrict mining activity on 67 million acres of mineral-rich federal land. This includes a proposal to withdraw 10 million acres of western lands to conserve the habitat of the sage grouse, a bird that is neither threatened nor endangered. In fact, the government’s own environmental assessment has determined that wildfires and invasive species of vegetation—not mining—have periodically threatened the bird’s habitat. The bird’s population has already increased 63 percent since 2013, thanks in part to contributions from state, local, and private conservation plans that have been largely ignored by federal planners. If such land use restrictions are left in place, however, they will simply combine with permitting delays to further limit access to the vast majority of the nation’s mineral reserves.
These bottlenecks will directly affect any efforts to rebuild domestic infrastructure, since federal lands in the Western United States produce much of America’s mineral wealth. Without more timely access to these resources, the nation will be forced to continue its growing and risky dependence on imports to supply critical minerals needed in both high-tech and industrial manufacturing. The United States is already entirely import-dependent for 19 key minerals, and more than 50 percent import-reliant for another 24 minerals. With half of the nation’s mineral wealth already off-limits or under restrictions, further limitations and land withdrawals will undoubtedly increase America’s import reliance—and from countries that may lack comparable environmental protections.
Thankfully, Washington is taking notice. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has asked for a 60-day review of new restrictions placed on mining in federal lands—a key step toward potentially accessing the minerals and metals needed for President Trump’s infrastructure plan. Reviews are also underway to streamline the duplicative permitting process for major projects.
America can minimize such impediments through better decision-making, while still retaining environmental safeguards. And that could help to build the foundation for a modern infrastructure that the nation urgently needs.
Hal Quinn is president of the National Mining Association, which advocates for U.S. coal, metal and industrial mineral producers and allied businesses. Read the full op-ed here.