02.15.2018 0

Permitting reform is key for economic growth, infrastructure planning, and national security

By Printus LeBlanc

You may not know it, but a hearing on Capitol Hill today, in the House Natural Resources Committee, will have an impact on every American. The Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources is holding a hearing on legislation introduced by Rep. Mark E. Amodei (R-Nev.), H.R. 520, the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act. The U.S. has become increasingly dependent on imports of these minerals despite having an abundance of many of them. Congress and the Trump administration are looking to change the permitting process for not just these mines, but for all projects.

Last year, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) released a report frightening report titled, “Critical Mineral Resources of the United States— Economic and Environmental Geology and Prospects for Future Supply.” The report lists minerals that are important for the economic health and national security of the U.S.:

Antimony (Sb), barite (barium, Ba), beryllium (Be), cobalt (Co), fluorite or fluorspar (fluorine, F), gallium (Ga), germanium (Ge), graphite (carbon, C), hafnium (Hf), indium (In), lithium (Li), manganese (Mn), niobium (Nb), platinum-group elements (PGE), rare-earth elements (REE), rhenium (Re), selenium (Se), tantalum (Ta), tellurium (Te), tin (Sn), titanium (Ti), vanadium (V), and zirconium (Zr).

The world as we know it cannot exist without these critical minerals. Cobalt is one of the most essential minerals on the list. Just about every battery on the planet has cobalt in it, including cell phones and electric vehicles. The military and civilian aviation use cobalt in jet engines. Life would be very different from what we know without this mineral.

A group of elements known as rare earth elements is probably the most important. The group represents 15 elements between atomic numbers 57 and 71. The elements have unusual physical and chemical properties that give them multiple applications.

The most common use for rare earth elements is in magnets. Two magnets used extensively in military technologies are samarium cobalt (SmCo), and neodymium iron boron (NdFeB). These are powerful magnets. The NdFeB magnet is considered the world’s strongest permanent magnet. This allows a small magnet to be used instead of a larger device and aides in the miniaturization of technology.  SmCo magnets are used for high-temperature applications where stability over a wide range of temperatures is essential.

The Congressional Research Service listed defense-related applications for REEs:

  • fin actuators in missile guidance and control systems, controlling the direction of the missile;
  • disk drive motors installed in aircraft, tanks, missile systems, and command and control centers;
  • lasers for enemy mine detection, interrogators, underwater mines, and countermeasures;
  • satellite communications, radar, and sonar on submarines and surface ships; and
  • optical equipment and speakers.

It’s pretty clear we do not have a worthy Defense Department without these critical minerals. Unfortunately, the U.S. is 100 percent dependent on foreign mines to supply U.S. needs, and China supplies 97 percent of the world’s supply. Yes, that is right. The U.S. military is dependent on an adversary nation for its weapons systems.

The bill has passed the House in previous Congresses but continuously dies in the Senate. That could change with President Trump’s proposed infrastructure plan, the key of which calls for a reduction in regulations for projects. Currently, the permitting process for projects takes years and crosses multiple agencies. According to the Department of Transportation, the median length of time to complete an environmental impact study is 3.5 years, and that is just some asphalt for a road.

The process gets much more cumbersome when discussing the mining industry. The average time for final permitting approval in the U.S. is 7-10 years, while Canada and Australia average just two years. Mining consulting giant, Behre Dolbear, listed “permitting delays” as the most significant risk to mining projects. Who is willing to invest hundreds of millions in a project before even a shovel of dirt can be dug up? This is not the way to stir economic growth.

President Trump and Congress must pass permitting reform before the infrastructure bill is passed. It does no good to pass an infrastructure bill without permitting reform. If that were to happen, the money would disappear into the federal bureaucracy instead of going to the needed projects. H.R. 520 must be included in the permitting reform. In fact, the upcoming budget is the perfect place to put the legislation with the rest of the permitting reform. President Trump and the Republicans should use their leverage to press permitting reform. By putting it in the budget, it is one less thing that can be bargained away in the infrastructure negotiating process.

Printus LeBlanc is a contributing editor at Americans for Limited Government.

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