Mine Permitting is the Foundation of the Supply Chain

Author: Rich Nolan
Mine permitting for critical minerals

Over the last two years, with the effects of shortages being felt in our daily lives, the American supply chain has been thrust into the spotlight. More than ever before, Americans are considering how many elements go into the products we use every day and where those products are sourced from. Minerals are woven into every facet of our industrialized society. We currently use 439 pounds of copper in the construction of our homes, 17 pounds of lithium in one electric vehicle (EV) battery and 200 pounds of steel for one wind turbine. The demand for these materials and goods is projected to grow exponentially, with a 1,000 percent increase in demand for minerals for advanced energy technologies alone.

In 2021, we were 100 percent reliant on imports for 17 critical minerals, and more than 50 percent import reliant for an additional 30, many of which are key to the production of EVs, solar panels and wind turbines.  Without revamping our mine permitting process, America will continue to rely on other countries, including Russia and China, for minerals that are critical to meeting our domestic energy needs. This dependency on foreign nations ultimately weakens the U.S. economy and presents national security risks. 

Understanding that energy security is now explicitly wrapped up with mineral security, supply chain security and national security, President Biden used the Defense Production Act to spur domestic production of minerals needed for battery manufacturing. But if we are going to proceed confidently into the future with a strong U.S. economy and achieve the mineral and energy security that America deserves, policymakers must eradicate the unnecessarily drawn-out and expensive timelines for bringing new domestic mines online.

Mine Permitting is the Missing Component 

As the Biden-Harris administration pushes for American-made clean energy, it is still missing an essential component: streamlining mine permitting. Without improving mine permitting processes, the programs that this administration wants to see flourish will not come to fruition.

Consider copper, the irreplaceable veins and arteries of an electrified world.  The International Energy Agency expects demand for copper to fully double by 2040. New copper projects are notoriously time-intensive and expensive. There is ever-greater urgency to invest in and stand up new reliable sources of copper production but despite the obvious need, self-imposed hurdles stand in the way. 

In 2021, the U.S. relied on foreign sources of copper, including from Mexico, Canada and Chile, for 45 percent of its needs. That’s not because the U.S. is lacking the resources. On the contrary, we have more than 48 trillion tons of copper reserves inside our borders. But with a decade-plus-long mine permitting process, we are relying on foreign countries to support our energy transition. What takes us a decade or more, takes our northern neighbor, Canada – also home to robust mineral reserves and comparable environmental regulations –just two to three years, allowing its citizens to reap the rewards of good-paying, long-term mining careers. If the U.S. was able to permit new mines along the same timeline, we could be operating new mines that were planned to directly respond to supply chain shortages felt in 2020. 

Weakening Supply Chains Need Smart Policies 

Despite our more than $6.2 trillion in mineral reserves, mineral imports remain a weakness in U.S. supply chains. And with regulatory uncertainty and protracted permitting timelines, it is difficult for the mining industry to bring new mines into operation as quickly as we need them. We can expect supply shortages and price hikes to continue if the U.S. does not act swiftly to develop a minerals strategy that prioritizes domestic mining. In fact, the new battery mega-factories being built may very well sit idle, awaiting the required materials from mines that must wait a decade or longer to receive a permit. 

Unfortunately, recent bills in Congress show a misguided understanding of how the mining process works. The U.S. is home to some of the most stringent environmental and safety mining laws in the world; as it should be. However, creating duplicative environmental regulations already covered in existing federal and state laws will only slow domestic mining and production. 

Mining policy reforms that respond to the urgency of the moment by reducing the barriers to mineral production in America, not raising them, will ensure American-made minerals will be available to support America’s energy future. It should be a joint priority that U.S. mined minerals, produced in accordance with the highest safety and environmental regulations, should be the foundation of the supply chain for our energy transition. 

Expedite the Mine Permitting Process, Before It’s Too Late 

To compete on the world stage, we must give domestic mining the focus it deserves, invest in its potential and streamline the mine permitting process before it’s too late. The elevated need for minerals is poised to strain every sector of the U.S. economy and we need urgent action from both the government and mining industry. Unless we move quickly to reshore supply chains and bring new mines and mineral processing capabilities online, America will bolster the minerals dominance of its geopolitical rivals.