By Rich Nolan
January 22, 2023 - An American mining renaissance is within reach. Congress and the Biden administration have worked to support development of the secure, reliable, and responsible mineral supply chains that our economy, energy future and national security demand.
But for all the momentum to rebuild and modernize our industrial base, a failure to address the nation’s broken mine permitting process threatens to undercut the entire effort.
Permitting challenges are ubiquitous across American infrastructure. In fact, they’ve become outsized obstacles to modernizing and building the roads, electricity transmission lines, pipelines and mines of tomorrow.
Modernizing the nation’s failing infrastructure, reshoring supply chains and deploying tomorrow’s energy solutions are all dependent on building and doing so at a scale and speed we haven’t achieved in decades. But, under our current permitting regime, it simply won’t happen.
While there is strong bipartisan agreement that we must have permitting reform, a deal has remained elusive. But the need to act only grows more urgent.
Now is the moment for Congress to bridge differences and stop kicking this can down the road.
Consider the speed and scale of the mineral demand now on our doorstep – and the frustratingly glacial pace of permitting. Supercharged by renewable energy deployment and the electric vehicle (EV) revolution, mineral demand is poised to grow between 500% and 1,000% in the coming decades, and many times higher for key minerals such as lithium and nickel –both essential to the EV battery supply chain.
For copper, which provides the irreplaceable wiring for electrification, annual demand is projected by 2050 to reach a level equal to all the copper consumed in the world between 1900 and 2021.
While mineral demand explodes, U.S. mineral production is stuck in first gear – with the U.S. growing ever more reliant on imports and supply chains dominated by geopolitical rivals, including China and Russia. Alarmingly, the U.S. is now import-reliant for 47 minerals, and 100% import-reliant for 17 of them.
Our challenge is not geology – the U.S. has vast mineral resources – but policy. With one of the longest permitting processes in the world, mine permitting in the U.S. now takes an average of seven to 10 years – if approvals are issued at all.
It’s a time scale completely out of step with the dramatic increases in mineral production needed to address our import reliance, and to meet the surging demands of our manufacturing sector.
These permitting delays have eroded investor confidence and pushed mining investment and production abroad.
During the past decade, when we should have been reshoring mineral supply chains, just the opposite happened.
In 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) received 72 applications to mine on federal land and approved 37 mine plans. In 2021, following a decade of decline, BLM received just 32 applications and approved only 14 mine plans.
Our geopolitical rivals have taken advantage of this bureaucratic inertia and have built enormous leads in securing the supply chains and manufacturing capacity for the technologies expected to dominate our energy future.
Regulatory certainty, transparency and efficiency in mine permitting are essential to mobilizing investment in the way that’s needed to meet surging demand.
The U.S. can build the mineral supply chains and industrial base essential to our economic competitiveness, energy future, and national security. But we can’t do that if we don’t take common-sense steps to address self-imposed obstacles.
The time to address America’s permitting challenge is now.
Rich Nolan is president and CEO of the National Mining Association.