Permitting Reform is the Key to a Secure Energy Future

Author: Rich Nolan
mine permitting graphic

We are entering the most mineral and metal intensive era in human history.

Mining and minerals play such a critical role in sustaining our homes, roads, pipelines, essential electronics, and so much more, that we are nearly in constant contact with them in some way. It’s easy to overlook the role of minerals in daily life and, while minerals are already so ingrained in every aspect of our lifestyles, the demand is only poised to grow exponentially.

We need the policies in place to meet this skyrocketing demand with American-mined minerals. Congress and the Biden administration have signaled support for further development of stable mineral supply chains on which our national security, economy and energy future rely, through tax incentives, loan programs and grants. But if we can’t get a mine permitted, the money is irrelevant.

Without serious mine permitting reform, the technologies we need for the energy infrastructure of the future and our energy security today will either be out of reach or entirely controlled by countries with more accessible supply chains. And despite growing bipartisan support for permitting reform, tangible progress remains elusive.

The Need Is Clear, Mine American Minerals Now

By 2040, we expect the demand for lithium to increase by 40 times; graphite, cobalt and nickel demand will increase up to 25 times, and copper by a staggering 143 percent.

The next generation of energy and infrastructure technologies require more minerals than ever before. And we don’t have 20 years to debate how to meet the need. For example, as more car manufacturers plan to make investments in electric and autonomous vehicle product development – and the administration dials up regulations to accelerate that transition – it’s clear that there will be a shortage of the minerals needed to construct electronic vehicle batteries; meeting consumer demand and government emissions regulations is not going to be possible at current production rates.

Today’s automakers are urging the government to help us ramp up domestic mining. Last year, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation wrote President Biden expressing concerns that “neither the current trajectory of consumer adoption of EVs, nor existing levels of federal support for supply- and demand-side policies, is sufficient to meet our goal of a net-zero carbon transportation future.”

Just this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed aggressive restrictions on auto emissions that will further drive mineral-intensive EV sales and accelerate the transition away from combustion engine vehicles. The consequence will be even more mineral demands.

The good news is that America has the mineral reserves to help the globe meet those demands, we just need the regulatory and political environment to unleash them. We have over $6 trillion worth of mineral resources in American soil. Accessing these minerals is going to take a robust and secure domestic supply chain, including more smelting, processing and refining capabilities in the U.S. The problem standing in our way is the decrepit, illogical mine permitting process that continues to move at a glacial pace. The permitting process takes an average of 7-10 years in the U.S., among the longest in the world, when it takes countries with comparable high environmental standards only a few years. Meanwhile, as we see dramatic upticks in mineral demand for the foreseeable future, our progress to meet production requirements remains frightfully out of step with reality.

American Competitiveness Is at Stake

Slow permitting deters investors, putting the U.S. at a severe competitive disadvantage. Investors see the U.S. as an unstable mining jurisdiction that requires millions or billions of dollars in upfront costs. Meanwhile, current S&P Global Market Intelligence reports place Canada and Australia as the most favored regions for mining investment; allied countries who environmental and regulatory environments mirror our own but can still foster mine development.

Without action, the U.S. and other major countries will continue to the line the pockets of our geopolitical adversaries. Future technologies will be made of their minerals instead of those from our healthy domestic supply. China, for example, controls 80% of the global rare earth element production and about 90% of global mineral processing capabilities, in addition to control of market prices of rare elements. Despite having limited reserves, China remains the primary supplier of many of the world’s essential minerals. That needs to change.

The NMA feels strongly about protecting the environment and ensuring that all safeguards are in place to support the mining workforce but permitting processes should not serve as an excuse to hold mining projects hostage with unpredictable, duplicative and costly reviews that offer no clear decision point.

To Meet Targets, Address Mine Permitting Immediately

Luckily, the bipartisan support for addressing the mine permitting challenge continues to grow. In February, I testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Energy and Minerals subcommittee on the topic. I highlighted the importance of including the following provisions in any permitting legislation to truly support domestic mine permitting:

  • Setting lead agencies to coordinate the permitting process.
  • Improving the timeliness of the permitting process through deadlines.
  • Allowing project applicants to complete environment impact statements with federal agency review, similar to the processes that are used in Canada and Australia.
  • Maintaining access to mineralized federal lands unless specifically withdrawn by Congress and unless the U.S. Geological Survey can ensure that a withdrawal does not threaten supply chains.
  • Maintaining decades of essential mining regulatory practice to not only ensure U.S. competitiveness but to prevent impediments to domestic production.
  • Providing more certainty to timing of legal reviews.
  • Unlocking innovation by not supporting prescriptive policies.

Many of these provisions were included in HR1, which recently passed the House, and we hope the Senate will give them serious consideration.

The U.S. is at a mining crossroads. While we watch the demand for minerals soar, we can’t sit back and let our policies handcuff our ability for producers to meet this growing need. It’s essential that we fight for more domestic mining and processing to fortify our energy security and meet future demand. From infrastructure to electrification, we can do it all with America-mined minerals, but Washington needs to address the mine permitting process now.