Quinn: Faster mine permitting needed
It’s no secret that our infrastructure is in serious need of attention. Everything from our roads, water treatment plants, railways, port facilities, pipelines, and electric grid needs investment. President Trump has wisely signaled that investment in infrastructure is a top priority.
The need for a new approach to infrastructure investment is glaring. Between 1960 and 1980, we spent 2.5 percent of U.S. gross domestic product on infrastructure. Today, at a time with significantly more complex infrastructure challenges, our investment has shrunk to just 1.7 percent of GDP. If it feels like we are neglecting the physical foundation of our country, it’s because we are. Digital networks and new software are no replacement for crumbling tunnels, tainted water systems, or broken subways. No American should worry that the bridge they use is going to collapse, or that the water their children drink might be impure.
President Trump has called for a $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan that will likely lean heavily on public-private partnerships. Pushing his plan through Congress — even with indications of bipartisan support for such investment — will not be easy. Despite ample evidence that wise infrastructure spending is an investment that boosts job creation, enhances public safety and health, enables economic growth, and helps connect people, efforts to provide the necessary infrastructure investment have proved remarkably difficult.
If President Trump wants to use his trillion-dollar infrastructure plan as an economic engine, particularly for the middle class, he should also think about sourcing the materials needed to build these roads, airports, railroads and other projects. Relying on Chinese steel, iron ore, or other metals to rebuild America would be like taking three steps forward but two steps back.
If this infrastructure plan comes to fruition, the demand for metals and minerals will soar. Consider that the Golden Gate Bridge, once the world’s longest suspension bridge, used 88,000 tons of steel. The new Tappan Zee Bridge, under construction just outside of New York City, requires 100,000 tons of steel. Some 6 billion tons of steel has already been used in the U.S. National Highway System. In addition, copper is essential to the wire that keeps national transit systems like Amtrak running. Silver is critical to large-scale water filtration systems and solar power generation. And due to its super strength, molybdenum is a key component in alloys used in the construction of large buildings and bridges.
Rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure will require massive amounts of raw materials. Fortunately, the U.S. is a major metals and minerals producer, but mining companies have a hard time opening new mines or expanding existing ones to meet rising demand under the current regulatory regime. It takes an average of seven to 10 years to permit a mine in the United States, compared to 2 to 3 years for Canada or Australia — countries that employ similar environmental safeguards.
Reforming the U.S. mine permitting process to ensure that domestic mineral producers can meet rising demand should be a bipartisan priority. Legislation recently introduced in the Senate by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and in the House of Representatives by Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., provides the necessary reform policies to improve efficiencies, reduce duplication, and ensure best practices throughout the mine permitting process. Doing so will help drive investment back to the United States, create stable family-wage jobs, and reduce the cost of rebuilding our infrastructure.
Our infrastructure is in decline. It’s time to reform our policies in order to reinvest, rebuild, and modernize. A necessary start will be to recalibrate our cumbersome and outdated mine permitting process. A streamlined system for mining the nation’s metals and minerals can provide the building blocks we need to rebuild America.
Hal Quinn is president and CEO of the National Mining Association.