Op-ed: Mining advocate’s view: Cumbersome mine permitting leaves U.S. foreign-dependent

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The age of the electric vehicle is here. No longer are electric vehicles just for the super rich or the environmental activist. They’re market-competitive vehicles now with prices and performance that are equal — or soon to be equal — to their gasoline or diesel rivals. Sales of electric vehicles are soaring. Consider that between 2010 and 2015, just 1 million electric vehicles were sold globally. More than 2 million electric vehicles are expected to be sold in 2020 alone.

As The Wall Street Journal has reported, the average electric vehicle currently on the market costs about $30,000 and holds a charge that will last roughly 100 miles. By the close of 2017, there will be multiple models available at comparable cost and double the range. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, electric vehicles could capture 50 percent of the global new car market by 2040.

As demand grows both for electric vehicles and the advanced batteries that make them possible, demand for the minerals and metals that are the building blocks of these cars and batteries is set to soar as well.

And there’s the rub. As we begin to throw off our dependence on foreign oil and the energy insecurity that plagued us for decades, it appears we are headed for potentially crippling dependence on foreign-sourced minerals and metals. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2016 Mineral Commodity Summary, the U.S. is 50 percent to 100 percent import-dependent on 43 key mineral commodities.

These are the minerals used to build electric vehicles and their batteries plus critical components in everything from cell phones and computers to jet engines and missiles. The U.S. Department of Defense uses 750,000 tons of minerals every year. America is forced to import nearly $7 billion worth of minerals annually to meet demand.

Our dependence on imported minerals is a potential economic Achilles heel of our own making. The problem is not that the United States lacks good geologic resources. Quite the opposite. We possess an estimated $6.2 trillion in minerals reserves. But while our resource base is enormous, so, too, is the bureaucracy and regulatory regime tasked with managing it.

Our overly burdensome and duplicative hardrock mine permitting process is a case in point. It can take almost a decade to receive a permit to open a new mine in the United States — or more than a decade as has been the unfortunate reality for PolyMet Mining in Northeastern Minnesota. By contrast, opening a new mine in Canada or Australia, countries with comparable environmental standards, takes just two to three years.

Our mine-permitting process makes it far too difficult for the mining industry to invest in the United States and to develop our vast resources. If we’re serious about meeting the coming uptick in demand for minerals and about preparing for a 21st-century economy, we must level the playing field for U.S. mining. That means bringing our mine permitting process into the 21st century, too.

Reforming the U.S. mine permitting process to ensure that domestic mineral producers can meet rising demand should be a bipartisan priority. Legislation recently introduced in the Senate by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and in the House of Representatives by Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., would provide the necessary reform policies to improve efficiencies, reduce duplication, and ensure best practices throughout the mine-permitting process. Doing so would help drive investment back to the U.S., create stable family-wage jobs, and meet the growing demand for domestic minerals and metals essential to manufacturing.

If we fail to revise U.S. minerals policies, beginning with revising our mine-permitting process, we will sleepwalk into even greater dependence on overseas producers.

We’ve gone down this road before with oil, when the energy crisis of the 1970s woke us up to the danger we had inflicted upon ourselves.

With demand for minerals just beginning to soar, Congress must not wait for a supply crisis to shock our economy before getting serious about making America a more attractive destination for mining investment and production.

Hal Quinn is president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Mining Association (nma. org), which advocates on behalf of America’s mining and minerals resources. He wrote this for the News Tribune.  Read the full op-ed in Duluth News here.

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