Amidst the chaos of Christmas shopping, holiday parties and travel arrangements, the end of the year is customarily the time to take stock of the last twelve months and assess where to go from here. Here is our recap of 2017:
On the heels of a year that very much presented itself as a mixed bag, there was some hope that, after several tough years for the mining community, we would see improvements with the national dialogue focusing on job creation, manufacturing and even trade – all of which are rooted in access to raw materials and resource development. And indeed, several executive orders issued over the last twelve months represent positive steps. Among them are:
E.O. 13766 – Presidential Executive Order Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals For High Priority Infrastructure Projects (Jan. 24, 2017)
- Outlines broad goals to streamline and expedite environmental reviews and approvals for infrastructure projects.
- The order acknowledges that, as Dan McGroarty had pointed out in an op-ed, “[i]t’s not your grandfather’s infrastructure” and helped kicked off an important debate over our crumbling infrastructure, including the question of where the materials that are required to build it come from.
E.O. 13807 – Presidential Executive Order on Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure (Aug. 15, 2017)
- Identifies environmental reviews and permit decisions as an important cause of delayed investment and requires federal agencies to undertake reforms.
- Coupled with subsequent agency directives, the order could prove a key factor in enhancing and modernizing the Federal environmental review and authorization process, which has hampered many industries, including the mining industry, as well as the oil, gas and alternative energy sectors.
E.O. 13806 – Presidential Executive Order on Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States (Jul. 21, 2017)
- Requires agency heads of various cabinet departments to report to the President policy recommendations for strengthening the U.S. defense industrial base by April 2018.
- The order acknowledges the very real risk of losing American manufacturing capabilities and could prove helpful if all parties involved realize that the key to strengthening our industrial base is to address our growing metals and minerals reliance on foreign sources of supply. See Dan McGroarty’s commentary at Investor’s Business Daily.
It must be noted, however, that as important as Executive Orders are, they are not legislation, and history has shown that policy that is set and enacted by the stroke of the Presidential pen can just as easily be undone. Ultimately, for any real progress to grab hold and develop staying power, codification of any reforms yielded by these orders through Congressional action is highly desirable.
In addition to federal executive actions, there was continued movement in public-private partnerships that combine the power of federal support and expertise and private sector innovation.
Last year, we highlighted a new public private partnership between the Critical Materials Institute (CMI) and mining company Rio Tinto aimed at studying new ways to capture Gateway Metals and Co-Products that are increasingly becoming indispensable in clean power manufacturing. Since then, we have witnessed an uptick in the use of public-private partnerships to harness and further advance the revolution in materials science.
Picking up on that trend, ARPN has instituted a new feature series on the blog entitled “Profiles of Progress,” in the context of which we showcase these types of partnerships, several of which have resulted in the development of award-winning cutting edge technologies in the field of materials science. Among the two most recent programs we profiled were:
- a partnership aimed at evaluating ways to extract Rare Earth Elements (REEs) from coal overburden, and
- a program under which CMI and a team of research partners are developing a new method using bioengineered bacteria to recover REEs.
During the second half of 2017, in particular, we saw some positive developments: Among them was the December 1, 2017 decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not to seek new duplicative financial responsibility requirements for hard rock mining companies. When the rule was first pushed in September of last year, ARPN principal Dan McGroarty had labeled the initial proposal a “solution in search of a problem” and outlined how the requirements would have effectively duplicated other federal agencies’ responsibilities, preempted state authority and potentially crippled and important industry.
Followers of ARPN may also be pleased to know that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that was signed into law just several days ago contains several relevant mineral resource policy provisions.
- It authorizes $5 million in funding for the development of strategic materials technology at the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) for the coming fiscal year. Considering the size of the federal budget that’s a relatively insignificant amount, but it’s good start.
- The NDAA also recognizes the strategic importance of Scandium – perhaps the rarest of the Rare Earths and an element on ARPN’s radar screen for some time. Scandium is an element for which the National Defense Stockpile Requirements report of 2015 had noted a potential shortfall with production concentrated in China, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine. In light of planned domestic Scandium production to the tune of 100 metric tons within the next five years, the defense bill directs the Secretary of Defense to brief congressional defense committees on the potential defense and industrial uses of Scandium.
- Further, to ensure greater fiscal stability of the National Defense Stockpile, the NDAA urges that the DoD use existing federal law to enter into commitments to purchase strategic and critical materials required to meet U.S. needs from domestic producers which DoD considers likely to initiate commercial production of such materials within the next five years.
At the state level, too, we have seen a few changes for the better:
- Earlier this month, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed legislation that repealed a nearly two decade old de facto moratorium on mineral extraction besides iron because of strict environmental concerns. Until now, Wisconsin was the only state to require a mining company to demonstrate that another U.S. or Canadian mine had been in operation for at least ten years and closed for ten years without pollution. With new, safe technologies continuing to ensure high environmental standards, the new law opens the door to mineral exploration in Wisconsin, which is home to known resources of Copper, Zinc, Gold and Silver.
- With the gateway potential of Copper and Zinc, Wisconsin could conceivably contribute a score of metals and minerals, some of which are among the many for which the U.S. is import-dependent. That makes Wisconsin a state to watch in 2018 and beyond.
- Legislation to clear a long-standing hurdle for mineral exploration in Minnesota is also moving forward. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would finalize a land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and a mining company seeking to advance a promising Copper-Nickel mining project.
- The land swap now allows the Army Corps of Engineers to weigh in on the project, effectively removing federal obstacles in the wake of a ten-year environmental review for a long-awaited open pit copper-nickel mine that could bring jobs help spur economic growth in the state. However, this bill now still needs to clear the U.S. Senate.
It’s progress, to be sure. All of these individual initiatives are important pieces of the puzzle – but in keeping with this image – at this point, they’re just loosely spread out across the table, while other countries are already framing their puzzles and hanging them on the wall.
With significant import dependencies for 50 metals and minerals, and 100% foreign dependencies for 20 of those, much more remains to be done.
In that vein, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention some of the things that didn’t happen this year.
Perhaps most glaring here is the failure on Congress’s part to pass a set of bills that were aimed at facilitating domestic resource development by calling for an assessment of critical mineral resource needs and tackling permitting delays. Passage of Rep. Mark Amodei’s (R-Nev.) National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2017 (H.R. 520) and the corresponding Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) – S.145 – would have constituted a big step towards reducing our dependence on foreign mineral resources.
Likewise, failure of the Senate to act on Senator Lisa Murkowski’s critical mineral provisions (S.1460) contained in the energy bill, constitutes another missed opportunity to move forward on that front.
Nevertheless, amidst a flurry of activity on both the state and federal levels, it appears that we’re ending the year on a high note, and awareness of the some of the core issues ARPN has long highlighted is indeed growing – as evidenced by the fact that both chambers of the U.S. Congress held hearings that underscored the importance of permitting reform and the dangers of our over-reliance on foreign mineral resources. Federal legislation to authorize $20 million a year for the Energy Department to research ways to extract Rare Earths from coal also appears to be gaining traction.
That said, it’s still far from clear that, in the global scramble to lock down scarce mineral resources, the U.S. recognizes what is at stake. In 2017 as in too many prior years, our international competitors continue benefitting from years of failure to reform U.S. mineral resource policy, as they jockey for pole position in various areas – be it the electronic vehicle technology sector or, in the realm of geopolitics, the Arctic circle.
As much as we welcome individual examples of progress, their small number (and, when it comes to much-needed investments, often small appropriation amount) makes the larger point that the U.S. still lacks a strategic view of the importance of a ready and reliable source of the scores of metals and minerals that power our modern economy and our advanced weapons systems.
Unlike other nations which are not blessed with abundant mineral resources beneath their own soil, we are in the fortunate position to have most – if not all – pieces of the resource strategy puzzle at our disposal. We have seen some promising developments and initiatives in 2017, but much will depend on how we go about furthering them in the years to come.
Here’s hoping that this year’s fresh impetus, bolstered by USGS’s brand new landmark study, the (in the words of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s) “shocking” findings of which underscore the need to act, carries over into next year and policy makers and other stakeholders get serious about putting the puzzle together. It is time to finally develop a comprehensive and strategically minded policy framework that allows us to unleash the United States’ vast domestic resource potential.At ARPN, we are confident that economic growth, technological advances, and national security depend on transforming resource potential into resource production.