How to revitalize America’s mining sector

Hal Quinn

Sometimes there’s actually encouraging news coming out of Washington.

In an effort to update America’s energy policy, and tackle some looming problems for the nation’s manufacturers, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation last week. The legislation addresses such diverse issues as cutting-edge energy technologies and the means to finally address America’s increasing dependence on minerals and metals sourced from overseas.

For years, the United States was a serious competitor in metals and mineral production. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since America is home to an estimated $6.2 trillion in diverse mineral reserves.

But somewhere along the way, domestic production dropped off significantly, to the point where America is now forced to rely on imports of as much as $32 billion in processed minerals each year.

This dependence on overseas supplies has put a real clamp on not only America’s manufacturing prowess but also the groundbreaking work of companies attempting to transform America into an all-of-the-above energy producer.

While the nation’s factories remain obvious consumers of traditional raw inputs such as iron, copper, and nickel, pioneering developments in wind turbines and solar panels require copious supplies of zinc, silver, aluminum, and molybdenum. And despite having these very metals and minerals here at home, America’s factories are being forced to search abroad for timely access to them. And all while the country is sitting atop these very same resources.

The problem has to do with the permitting process for new mining operations in the United States. It now takes as much as 10 years to secure a permit that allows new mining efforts to commence. Redundant policies are keeping America from opening the very mines needed to supply our energy sector and manufacturers with critical metals and minerals.

A sad irony is that it’s mostly paperwork hurdles that are hampering the clearance process. Australia and Canada — two countries with comparable, high-tech industry and environmental standards — are able to complete their mining clearances in an average of only two to three years per operation.

Fortunately, the Senate recognized the inefficiency of the situation and worked to pass Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s, R-AK, package of energy measures improving access to minerals critical for both traditional and emerging energy production.

What’s promising is that there is now a clear recognition that access to the nation’s minerals supply chain is a major building block toward energy security. This kind of forward thinking can lead to a revitalized manufacturing sector.

Hopefully this mutual, bipartisan focus in Washington will continue long enough to get America’s mining, manufacturing, and energy sectors back on track toward a more promising future.

Hal Quinn is president of the National Mining Association.