The House passed legislation that would make it easier and faster for mining companies to get approval from the federal government to develop minerals on federal lands, although opponents are concerned that the bill would undermine key environmental protections
On Oct. 22, the House passed legislation -- by a mostly party line vote of 254 to 177 -- to streamline exploration and permitting for the mining of minerals on federal lands. The aim of the bill is to more efficiently develop minerals of “strategic and critical importance” to U.S. economic and national security and manufacturing competitiveness. Opponents are concerned, however, that the legislation would allow developers to bypass key federal environmental protections that are currently required by law. In addition, they say that since the bill defines critical minerals so broadly it would loosen those environmental protections for nearly all mining on federal lands.
Specifically, H.R. 1937, the “National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act,” would require the Department of Interior to waive National Environmental Protection Act reviews for mining permits for “strategic and critical minerals” if the federal or state permitting process is deemed “adequate.” It also would limit judicial reviews and use a number of strategies to reduce the time for review of federal mining permitting decisions.
Bill’s supporters concerned with efficiency and speed of permitting, opponents cite environment
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) hails from a state that is rich in minerals of all kinds, and in its nickname, the Silver State, Nevada has tied itself to the importance and history of mining. Amodei believes that the nation stands to benefit from giving developers better access to mineral resources, adding that environmental protections would not be abridged under his bill:
“Permitting delays stand in the way of high-paying jobs and revenue for local, often rural, communities. This legislation does nothing to circumvent environmental regulations or public input. It would simply streamline the permitting process to leverage our nation's vast mineral resources, while paying due respect to economic, national security and environmental concerns.”
Amodei and the bill’s supporters claim government is getting in the way of new mining projects and that the extent of reviews and delays required by the federal government are unnecessary. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) emphasized this point during the bill’s consideration on the House floor:
“Burdensome red tape, duplicative reviews, frivolous lawsuits, and onerous regulations can hold up new mining projects here in the U.S. for more than 10 years. These unnecessary delays cost American jobs as we become more and more dependent on foreign countries, such as China, for these raw materials.”
In a Statement of Administration Policy strongly opposing H.R. 1937, the Obama Administration offered a different view. The President’s team stopped just short of threatening a veto of the bill, saying the bill would “undermine existing environmental safeguards for, at a minimum, almost all types of hard rock mines on Federal lands.” The Statement of Administration Policy continues:
“Specifically, H.R. 1937 would undermine sound Federal decision-making by eliminating appropriate reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act if certain conditions are met, circumventing public involvement in mining proposals, and bypassing the formulation of alternatives to proposals, among other things. … The Administration strongly supports the development of rare earth elements and other critical minerals, but rejects the notion that their development is incompatible with existing safeguards regarding uses of public lands, environmental protection, and public involvement in agency decision-making.”
House debates the breadth of scope of ‘strategic and critical minerals’
Critical minerals are integral to a number of common applications and products used in everyday life and in scientific research, including for energy production, transmission and storage; telecommunications; electronics; aerospace propulsion; coatings and pigments; ceramics and glass; steel and other metallic alloys; biomedical devices; and pharmaceuticals. According to the legislation, U.S. dependence on other countries is rising. Between 1990 and 2014 the U.S.’s import dependence for minerals increased from 45 to 65 commodities, 19 of which the U.S. must import for all of the nation’s requirements. Furthermore, “the U.S. share of worldwide mineral exploration dollars was 7 percent in 2014, down from 19 percent in the early 1990s.”
An amendment offered by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) that would have aligned the definition of “strategic and critical minerals” with the definition of the National Academy of Sciences, failed by a vote of 176 to 253. The legislation defines critical minerals quite broadly as those that “are necessary for national defense and national security requirements; for the Nation’s energy infrastructure, including pipelines, refining capacity, electrical power generation and transmission, and renewable energy production; to support domestic manufacturing, agriculture, housing, telecommunications, healthcare, and transportation infrastructure; or for the Nation’s economic security and balance of trade.” Lowenthal noted that this definition is so broad that it would include the mining of essentially all minerals, including gold, silver, copper, sand, clay, gravel and potentially even coal. A 2008 National Academy of Sciences study defined a critical mineral as one that “performs an essential function for which few or no satisfactory substitutes exist” and therefore is “required in certain key applications,” adding that a critical mineral must also be at risk facing restrictions in supply. Examples under this definition include uranium, copper, lithium, titanium, and manganese.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) released a statement upon the House passage of H.R. 1937, which captured the views of the bill’s supporters:
“Strategic rare minerals are used in cell phones, computers, cars, defense materials, and more, but as recently as 2010, China controlled 95 percent of the production of these precious minerals. Though the Chinese share in world production has dropped slightly in recent years, it still commands much of the market, making American developers and manufacturers almost completely reliant on foreign sources. But that’s not because such minerals only exist outside of U.S. borders. Rather, the Federal government acts as an obstacle to domestic mining, stopping American producers from answering America’s demand. Today’s bill streamlines the permitting process for mining projects and requires the relevant federal departments to develop sources of these materials here at home.”