The Mine Permitting Challenge

Author: Rich Nolan
The Mine Permitting Challenge

To deploy a suite of advanced technologies that are capable of dramatically reducing global emissions, we will see a 1,000% increase in mineral usage by 2050. Think about that for a moment. That statistic is staggering, especially if you consider our reliance on foreign minerals to meet current demand. And while we are making some strides in the right direction, we are still missing pieces of the puzzle.

In recent weeks, we have seen increased bipartisan support for addressing the growing mineral demand in the U.S. and around the globe. However, we need further action from Congress to bring domestic mining to the forefront, allowing American mining to reach its full potential. Complicating matters could be an extremely unhelpful report from the White House’s Interagency Working Group on Mining, led by the Department of the Interior (DOI), which is rumored to be set to recommend a complete change to some of the fundamental tenets that govern mining in the U.S. — an action that is sure to destabilize mine permitting across the country and reverse any progress that may have been made in recent years.

An Ill-Advised Report

The Biden administration’s Interagency Working Group (IWG) was created to address our supply chain issues and ostensibly streamline the permitting process; in reality, if it proceeds as rumored, it will have the opposite impact. When it comes to the global minerals race, the U.S. is critically outmatched by our geopolitical rivals and allies alike. Yet, the administration and critics of mining continue to point to the age of the General Mining Law when its age is irrelevant. Modern environmental laws that have been introduced in the last three decades make U.S. mining one of the most comprehensively regulated industries in the world, providing existing protections that do not need to be duplicated. If the Biden administration’s stated objective is to secure our nation’s domestic mineral supply chains while supporting responsible mining, the recommendations rumored to be contained in this report achieve just the opposite.

Actions such as converting from a locatable claims system to a leasing system, the addition of subjective mining standards or the imposition of outsized gross royalty payments will throw additional obstacles in the way of responsible domestic projects and would-be investment. This would force the U.S. to double-down on our already outsized import reliance from countries with questionable labor, safety and environmental practices.

The real problem that needs to be addressed is our exceedingly lengthy permitting processes — an issue that would only be exponentially compounded by the recommendations in this report. We urge Congress to right the ship and aggressively enact commonsense, bipartisan permitting reform instead of unwisely upending the General Mining Law that has supported the exploration of domestic minerals on federal lands for more than a century. Achieving this administration’s climate, supply chain, and energy goals depends on it.

Mine Permitting Right Now

In June 2023, President Biden signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which established deadlines for certain environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): a two-year deadline for environmental impact statements and one year deadline for environmental assessments. However, it is important to keep in mind that permitting progress in the budget deal does not mean “permitting mission accomplished.” While the Fiscal Responsibility Act starts to chip away at some of the barriers currently stifling domestic mining, it’s not enough. Not even close.

Without Congress taking more significant action, we can count on the mineral demand of the future to be met with foreign materials — even when America is home to some of the largest mineral reserves in the world. By passing more progressive and comprehensive legislation, Congress can support American mining in several ways:

  • Streamlining the permitting process will increase U.S. competitiveness and provide the opportunity for our domestic mining industry to meet the soaring demand barreling down on us. Our mineral import reliance this year reached its highest in history — we are moving in the wrong direction. If we are going to bring enough domestic mines online as quickly as we need them, and reduce our import reliance, speeding up the permitting process is non-negotiable.
  • We must also retain both access to the mineralized federal lands and the responsible mining practices we’ve relied on for decades. Making substantial changes to land access or creating new, duplicative regulations will further slow an already arduous process.
  • We need transparency and clarity surrounding the timing and scope of legal reviews, clarification on the Clean Water Act, and the issuance of 404 and 401 water permits.

There is support from both sides of the aisle for permitting reform. We can meet our mineral and energy demands with domestic mining by passing legislation that streamlines the permitting process by removing unnecessary oversight, expensive, long review timelines and duplicative environmental regulations. Until we pass bills that work for American mines, we will continue lining the pockets of our geopolitical rivals instead of obtaining the minerals we need for our energy future from domestic reserves.