October 11, 2019
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As the administration pushes a $1 trillion national infrastructure program, with an explicit desire to use American-made materials, experts say mine permitting delays could prevent that vision from becoming reality, and in turn could make the U.S. more reliant on mineral imports.
Over the past two years, Hecla Mining Company has taken a calculated risk – purchasing two Montana mines prized for their silver and copper deposits, but mired in ongoing permitting delays and litigation. For Hecla, which has been in the mining business for more than a century, the approximately $65 million investment represented an opportunity to enter a new market: copper.
“We would like to be able to capitalize on that,” said Luke Russell, vice president of external affairs at Hecla. “We wouldn’t be in the business if we weren’t optimistic…but unless we are producing copper and silver here in the U.S., we will import more of these metals that we need for our infrastructure projects.”
Hecla is still waiting for permission to start mining, a wait that began more than two decades before Hecla bought the two mines.
If the permitting delays like these continue, American-made mines might miss out on the burgeoning demand for minerals required for advanced energy and other types of infrastructure. For example, copper is an essential ingredient for renewable energy, particularly wind turbines and solar panels, which require tons of minerals just to manufacture.
In fact, a 2015 SNL Metals and Mining report, found that the permitting process for U.S. mines on average took seven to 10 years to complete. And keep in mind, that is just an average – Hecla’s Montana projects have far surpassed this marker.
“[The administration’s] action is a great start, but…to succeed in delivering infrastructure projects that are on time and under budget, Congress must focus on long-lasting permitting reforms to make it easier to access raw materials in a responsible way,” Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, said in a recent op-ed in The Hill.
In addition to import reliance and supply-chain disruption, another grave concern presents itself: while dozens of U.S. mines remain tied up in bureaucratic delays, America’s roads, bridges, dams and mass transit systems are in critical need of repair. In February, heavy rains caused the Twentyone Mile Dam in Nevada to burst, causing floods, damaged property, and closed roads in the area. Seven months before the incident, the dam received a “fair” rating by the Nevada Division of Water Resources during an inspection. Only two years ago, the “Pennsy Bridge” in Central Pennsylvania was undergoing repairs when it collapsed because it could not support the weight of the heavy equipment. The collapse sent three workers to the emergency room.
The gravity of this issue is captured by the most recent report card handed out by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave the United States a D+ on infrastructure—a rating indicating the system is “poor” and “at risk.”
“Minerals are the fundamental building blocks for our nation’s infrastructure, and we need to be able to access them in a timely manner — not only to build new wind turbines and solar panels, but also to revitalize our nation’s at-risk bridges, tunnels and road,’ said Hal Quinn, NMA president and CEO.
Fortunately, Congress is paying attention. Recently-introduced Senate legislation includes provisions to help address mine permitting delays and supply the energy infrastructure sector with much-needed raw materials to rebuild America. This is a very important first step.
Learn more about this legislation that will ensure our nation has access to the minerals that will help ensure a successful future for the U.S., and please see our infographic below highlighting minerals’ contributions to building U.S. infrastructure.