Op-ed: Mine-permitting thicket is retarding U.S. competitiveness

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The American Society of Civil Engineers just issued a new report card for the nation’s infrastructure and the results are abysmal. Our infrastructure got a D+. The ASCE warns that we must close a $2 trillion investment gap in the next decade to right the ship.

Watching the recent evacuation of nearly 200,000 people downstream from the Oroville Dam in California, as overflowing waters threatened destructive flooding, was just the latest sign that something must be done.

Thankfully, President Donald Trump is pushing a $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan that, if approved, will put us on track to meet the challenge. But while we now seem serious about rebuilding our infrastructure, we need to make sure we are taking necessary steps to source the building blocks to do so.

Rebuilding our roads, bridges, dams, airports, water treatment systems, railways, and pipelines, along with so much other critical infrastructure, is going to take a tremendous amount of material. Demand for metals – everything from iron ore, to steel, zinc, copper and silver, all critically important to infrastructure – is going to soar.

The United States is blessed with vast reserves of these metals and is a major producer, but ramping up domestic production to meet coming demand is going to require loosening the regulatory straitjacket currently constraining our hard rock mining industry.

Shedding that straitjacket must begin with revising our redundant and inefficient mine permitting process.

We have a first world mineral endowment but a third world permit process that makes it nearly impossible to open a new mine or expand an existing operation. Gaining the necessary approvals to open a new mine in the United States takes seven to 10 years, and often longer.

Consider that in Canada and Australia, nations with similar environmental safeguards, the mine-permitting process takes just two to three years. The choice between protecting the environment and revising our mine-permitting process is a false one. As Canada and Australia demonstrate, we can do both.

If President Trump wants to source new dam or pipeline projects with American-made steel – not imports from China or India – reform cannot wait. Rebuilding American infrastructure with foreign-sourced materials would be a wasted opportunity to help create good, community-supporting jobs. New mines and mills, and the high-wage jobs they support, represent precisely the middle class investment this country needs more than ever.

Our high-tech economy is heavily reliant on the minerals and metals we should be producing domestically.
In fact, the need for mine-permitting reform is driven by far more than just coming infrastructure reinvestment. Every sector of our increasingly high-tech economy is now heavily reliant on the minerals and metals we should be producing domestically but largely aren’t. Although we possess an estimated $6.2 trillion in minerals reserves, we import nearly $7 billion in minerals and metals each year.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2017 Mineral Commodity Summaries, America is import-dependent on half or all of 50 key mineral commodities. If we don’t act now, this dependency will only grow.

Fortunately, some lawmakers are treating mine-permitting reform with the urgency it deserves. Legislation recently introduced in the Senate by Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller and in the House of Representatives by Rep. Mark Amodei, also a Republican from Nevada, provides the necessary reform policies to improve efficiencies, reduce duplication, and ensure best practices throughout the mine-permitting process. Their efforts deserve full-throated, bipartisan support.

The need to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure is a crisis we can no longer ignore. As we take important steps to rebuild our dams, roads, and pipelines, let’s also take the needed steps to revise our mine-permitting process. Meeting minerals and metals demand right here at home, while creating good American jobs to improve our infrastructure, should be a priority all can support.

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

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