This week the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources met to hear HR 1937: the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2015. Under this bill, anything pulled from the ground is a strategic and critical mineral and none of it receives adequate environmental review.
The Gift For the Industry that Has Everything
What else does the mining industry need? Already, the 1872 Mining Law provides free access to and ownership of the public’s land and minerals. The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have no discretion to choose any other land use over mining. The mining industry pays no royalty to taxpayers. And yet, the House majority wants more. Under this bill, sand, gravel, even timber could become a strategic and critical mineral. Worse yet, HR 1937 guts the ability for community input in permitting decisions.
The World’s Best Places to Mine
With our rich mineral endowment, functional democratic government, stable currency and advanced financial system, the United States of America is among the world’s best mining investment destinations. This is according to the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think tank that annually surveys mining companies. Ask the mining industry where they want to dig and Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah are among the first places mentioned. Alaska and Montana are often not far behind.
The World’s Best Sand and Gravel
How worried are we that our nation’s supply of rocks may become subject to the whims of a foreign dictator? The United States Geological Survey has carefully looked at this question. We call a mineral critical not just because it has important applications. Truly critical minerals also have few substitutes and have a high risk of supply chain disruption. So when a natural disaster occurs requiring a sudden need for road and bridge construction, sand becomes critical if it’s only found on North Korean beaches.
How long does permitting take?
The average time the BLM spends permitting a large mine is 3 to 4 years. This is comparable to the time spent by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and similar nations with significant mining development. To the extent permitting takes longer than average, often the reason is the mining applicant changes their plan of operations or the price volatility of the target mineral renders the deposit temporarily uneconomic.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 provides a well-established permitting path granting regulatory certainty to permit applicants, regulators, and concerned communities. After more than 45 years, all interested parties have a good handle on how NEPA works. HR 1937 cuts communities out of permitting decisions by subverting the NEPA process.
The Real Price of Sand
Ultimately, market forces shape investment decisions- not environmental review processes. Metal prices give mine deposits their value. Sometimes prices rise. Other times they fall. Left over after the boom and bust cycle of resource extraction remains the communities impacted by poisoned lands and perpetual water pollution. Rather than disenfranchise these communities, we need real reform of our mining laws giving regulators discretion and making polluters responsible for their mess.