If you think hard enough, you can find something wrong with anything. Case in point: If there’s anything remotely wrong with having an op-ed appear in the Wall Street Journal, it’s that, for some topics, sometimes 750 words just isn’t enough.
So I’ll step back here to the Internet for a bit of prequel and sequel to the piece WSJ was gracious enough to run.
For me, the catalyst for the piece was my immediate reaction to the White House’s laudable goal to double the speed of U.S. manufacturing. Knowing that U.S. mine permitting is easily twice as slow – and more than that in many cases – as in other mining nations, I pictured the prospect of a manufacturing push derailed by the basic inability to source the metals and minerals necessary to make it work. Adjust for Moore’s Law (as amended by David House), with computing capacity doubling every 18 months, and the 7 to 10 years it takes to bring the average U.S. mine through the permitting process is roughly 4 to 6 high-tech “lifetimes.”
Put another way, how can a typical U.S. technogeek design system 1.0 when the metals and minerals needed to fabricate it won’t come out of an American mine til he’s on version 4-, 5-, or 6.0?
The real-world answer is: he won’t. Or at least not for production here in the U.S. He’ll source his material – maybe even site his fab plant – in a country where mining happens faster.
Judging by the pick-up, posts and reprintings, people understood the problem.
The question is, what will we do about it?
Because if we do no more than commiserate about our balky resource development system, we’ll miss the main point. What we need now is to generate momentum for reform – a shift in public policy that parallels the dynamism of the private sector which is ready to advance resource development. If we let it.
I didn’t have the space in the WSJ to point out that Australia permits mines in 18 to 24 months, while Canada does it in about one-third to half the time it takes in the U.S.. Neither country ranks as an environmental scofflaw. Indeed, Sweden — where extractive industries account for roughly 1/5th of its annual exports — is at once ranked as one of the world’s 5 most “sustainable countries,” at the very moment it ranks second in a study of countries that place the least obstacles in the path of mine development.
You’d think that means we’re ready for a sober, science-based round of permitting reform.
And you’d be wrong.
Propose even a modest change to the U.S.’s never-ending permitting story, and a certain sort of anti-mining activist will howl about industry rubber-stamps and environmental short-cuts — as if this bureaucratically barnacled maze we have now is the Platonic ideal for mine permitting. Underneath that position is a decidedly non-scientific belief that when it comes to reviewing a mine, long is good, longer is better, and right time to permit a mine of any kind is… never.
That doesn’t bode well for the U.S. in a world where capital flows freely to projects with the lowest risk and greatest certainty in terms of public policy. Mines delayed here will simply be built elsewhere. Metals that remain in the ground here will simply provide “price support” for metals mined elsewhere, and sold to us at a profit – or perhaps, in times of crisis, denied to us, if that happens to advantage the supplier country.
If we stagger forward with our current system, let’s be honest and open-eyed about the outcome: We will perpetuate foreign dependencies that will impair our ability to bring the manufacturing supply-chain home to American cities and towns, forfeiting jobs and GDP and adding to our outbound balance of trade transfers. We will hand to nations who do not always wish us well leverage over our economy and – in the case of the many metals required for our advanced weapons systems – our national security. And we will surrender a large portion of the innovation-driven advances in high-tech and green-tech to nations that can offer access to metals and minerals the U.S. in many instances possesses but makes it impossible to mine.
If we’re serious about reviving American manufacturing, if we’re serious about restoring American jobs, if we’re serious about making sure the high-tech and green-tech dreams of the future are Made In America, if we’re serious about safeguarding our national security – we need a new resource development strategy. And we need it now.