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Permitting Reform is Important, But Not a Panacea: The Importance of a Comprehensive All-Of-The-Above Approach That Also Includes Grassroot Support

Members of the U.S. Congress are returning to Washington, D.C. – the Senate is already back while the House will return next week – to tackle a hodgepodge of unresolved federal issues. While, as it does so often, an impasse on federal spending with a looming government shutdown stands to dominate the news cycle, lawmakers may also, as E&E News Daily phrased it “see if they can fit in progress on a compromise to accelerate permitting for energy projects.”

The June debt ceiling deal included several permitting reform provisions, among them most notably time and page limits on for Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) and Environmental Assessments (EAs).

With that, however, while talks are ongoing, some involved in the negotiations worry that the momentum for broader changes may have been blunted.

Whether or not lawmakers on Capitol Hill are able to overcome their differences on permitting reform remains to be seen — however, experts caution that it takes more to deliver a clean domestic energy supply chain.

As Elizabeth Wilson, professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, Simon Lomax, program manager at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines, and Morgan Bazilian, former lead energy specialist for the world Bank and the Director of the Payne Institute write in the New Hampshire Union Leader, beyond permitting reform, “[g]rassroots support is also essential, and that means overcoming decades of public ambivalence – and hostility – towards U.S. mining projects. “

After decades wrought with challenges, they say, “[t]oday, (…) there’s an opportunity to write a new chapter for the U.S. mining sector, in which more of the raw materials for advanced energy technologies are produced here, under the most protective standards in the world.”

However, Wilson, Lomax and Bazilian say, this can’t happen without strong public support or, “the social license to operate.”

In order to receive this social license to operate, they suggest stakeholders pursue at least these four approaches:

  1. Prioritize local concerns.  Open lines of communication and thoughtful interaction with the locals are key when looking to advance resource projects. The authors point to NioCorp’s efforts to mine EV battery materials in Nebraska, where NioCorp has emphasized other uses for the materials, especially in the U.S. military thus appealing to a prevailing local sense of patriotism. 
  2. Embrace full-value mining.  Identifying innovative ways to process rocks to extract other metals and minerals from existing mines, like Rio Tinto has successfully done with its tellurium extraction process in the context of its Kennecott copper operations in Utah, can help reduce waste and improve economics. 
  3. Harness tailings and waste streams. Technologies like those developed by companies like Nth Cycle and Phoenix Tailings enable miners to extract critical minerals from discarded rock and other mine waste streams, allowing for the strengthening of domestic supply chains while improving remediation efforts.
  4. Confront the past to build the future. With between 68% and 97% of U.S. cobalt, copper, lithium and nickel reserves located within 35 miles of Native American reservations, meaningful ongoing engagement with Native American communities, who suffered in the 19th and early 20th century quest for mineral wealth, cannot be sidestepped.

As Wilson Lomax and Bazilian say:

“A domestic supply chain for critical minerals cannot be built from Washington, D.C., with the stroke of a pen. It requires strong state and local engagement too.” 

Thankfully, the U.S. mining industry has already begun to embrace and implement these concepts and can build on them going forward. (See ARPN’s recent coverage on the industry’s effort to “turn the same stone twice” here and here). In the meantime, policy stakeholders must do their part to devise a policy framework conducive to harnessing our nation’s vast mineral resources.  Permitting reform is an important part of this, but so is promoting and fostering a pro-mining culture among their constituencies.

After all, as the authors close:

“It’s not a one-way street. Consumers and communities who demand clean energy technologies should also care about the supply chains for those technologies.

Support for climate action is support for mining — it’s just a matter of where, when and how that mining takes place.”