Miners Wait Years to Get U.S. Permits as Republicans Push Reform

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Mark Amodei
U.S. Representative Mark Amodei. Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

The $6 billion Resolution Copper Project in Arizona was discovered almost two decades ago and is slated to become North America’s largest copper mine. Don’t expect production to start any time soon.

Co-owners Rio Tinto Group and BHP Billiton Ltd. waited 10 years to get federal approval in December to gain access to the land. It will probably take another five years to get permits from various federal, state and local agencies for the mile-deep shaft in Arizona.

The tortuous bureaucratic process to approve new mining projects in the U.S. is among the slowest in the world, hindering access to mineral resources that the National Mining Association values at $6.2 trillion. It’s drawing criticism from mining executives and has spurred a Republican-backed push to reform mining laws.

“The U.S., by and large, is the longest of the permitting exercises,” said Diane Garrett, chief executive officer of Romarco Minerals Inc.

Romarco began applying for permits for its Haile gold mine in South Carolina in January 2011 and got federal approval in November. Because the mine is on private land, fewer agencies get to weigh in on permits than for projects on public land, and the process is typically faster. Yet, in one case, a federal agency asked the Toronto-based company to duplicate a study it had already completed for Haile, delaying the process by a year.

“These permits should not drag on,” said Garrett, who has also developed mines in Latin America.

‘Very Slow’

The permitting process in the U.S. is “very slow” compared to other countries, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, head of Rio Tinto’s global copper and coal business, said in an interview.

“The current system is complex and often duplicative among various federal agencies,” he said June 4 at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce roundtable advocating for shorter permit wait times.

Accelerating the process is the goal of legislation sponsored by Representative Mark Amodei, a Nevada Republican, that would cap environmental reviews at 30 months and limit lawsuits against projects. Similar legislation was passed by the House of Representatives in the past two sessions and failed in the Senate.

The bill would set strict permitting timelines for the development of “critical minerals,” which he broadly defines as gold, copper, coal and almost anything else that can be extracted.

“This bill’s aim isn’t to do a favor for the mining industry,” said Amodei, whose grandfather was a miner. “Minerals play a key part in domestic policy, monetary and fiscal policy, and also have strategic importance.”

Environmental Opposition

Opponents including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi say the bill would undercut environmental judicial review and its definition of critical minerals is too broad.

The California Democrat “strongly opposes” the bill, said Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman.

Obtaining permits and approvals to build a mine in the U.S. takes on average seven to 10 years, more than double what was needed in 1993, according to Behre Dolbear Group Inc., a Denver-based international mining advisory group. In Australia and Canada, which have environmental laws similar to the U.S., it’s about two years.

The time needed to get permits for U.S. mines has swelled in part due to a “notable increase” in bureaucracy as regulators and the public sought greater accountability, according to Behre Dolbear’s CEO Karr McCurdy.

That’s threatening investment in new projects, according to the National Mining Association. While the U.S. attracted 20 percent of the global exploration mining budget in 1993, that figure has dropped to 7 percent, according to the Washington-based trade group.

‘Bureaucratic Inefficiencies’

“This seems to be directly tied to the length of time to get these permits,” Katie Sweeney, general counsel for the mining association, said in a phone interview. “Bureaucratic inefficiencies are what the Amodei bill tries to address.”

With Republicans gaining a majority in the Senate in November, the bill has a good chance of getting to President Barack Obama’s desk, according to Caitlin Webber, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst.

In 2013, when the legislation was introduced for the second time, the White House Office of Management and Budget said it “would undermine and remove the environmental safeguards, for, at a minimum, almost all types of hardrock mines on federal lands.” The White House declined to say whether the president would sign or veto the current bill if it’s passed by Congress.

‘Environmental Destruction’

Amodei’s bill will only “enhance a lot of the environmental destruction that’s associated with mining,” Bobby McEnaney, an analyst at Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview.

Amodei said boosting investment in mining would decrease U.S. dependence on imports. Less than half of the mineral needs of U.S. manufacturers are met from domestically produced resources, according to the mining association.

If the U.S. has its “fair share or more of resources, then why aren’t we using that to be competitive in the global economy?” Amodei asked.

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