The role of mining in infrastructure’s future
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January 09, 2018
The role of mining in infrastructure’s future

If, as promised, the Trump administration switches its focus in 2018 to infrastructure, we may be seeing more of an effort to speed up permitting and environmental reviews for mining on federal land.

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“The U.S. has one of the longest permitting processes in the world for mining projects,” testified Luke Russell at a December 2017 hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Russell is a vice president with Hecla Mining Company. The topic of the hearing was actions the federal government can take in conjunction with the states to get a major infrastructure overhaul off the ground.

Domestic mining activities produce the materials needed to build runways, bridges, rail lines, and roads, as well as the cars, planes, and trains that travel on them.

“In the U.S., necessary government authorizations now take approximately seven to 10 years to secure, or even longer in some of our experience, placing the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage in attracting investment for mineral development,” Russell continued. “By comparison, permitting in Australia and Canada, which have similar environmental standards and practices as the U.S., takes between two and three years.”

President Donald Trump formally set his infrastructure reform program in motion in an August 2017 Executive Order (EO). The EO directed all federal agencies to shorten their environmental reviews and authorization processes for infrastructure projects and find ways to expedite permitting.

Interior setting limits

The Department of the Interior (DOI) is the nation’s primary agency for permitting mining activity on federal land, and the DOI is trying to respond to the kinds of concerns raised by Russell. For example, following issuance of the EO, the DOI produced a number of directives intended to streamline environmental assessments required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Based on the directive, the DOI is working to set page and time limitations for most NEPA environmental impact statements; set target page and time limitations for the preparation of NEPA environmental assessments; and review DOI’s current NEPA procedures and provide recommendations to streamline the process.

In testimony at the Senate hearing, James Cason, DOI’s Associate Deputy Secretary, added that the DOI is also looking at ways to streamline leasing and permitting for hard-rock mining, while at the same time addressing the backlog of mining notices, exploration plans, and mine plans.

“We intend to do this by ensuring that adequate resources are available to address notice-level and plan-level work for exploration and mining and to efficiently process new applications for hardrock mining,” said Cason. “It is also important to enhance coordination with states, tribes, and other agencies in a way that will result in streamlined review and approval of the NEPA documents related to hardrock mining.”


Improving federal permitting in general is the main occupation of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC), which was formed under Title 41 of the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act (FAST-41). With the objective of creating a more standardized, predictable permitting process that protects public health, safety, and the environment, the FPISC focuses on conducting project-specific coordination to ensure multiagency collaboration for large and complex infrastructure projects; incorporating best practices identified by industry and government into the federal permitting process; and establishing recommended performance schedules for use by agencies in developing permitting timetables with target completion dates.

At the hearing, Janet Pfleeger, acting executive director of the FPISC, discussed the impact of permitting delays.

“The National Mining Association (NMA) commissioned a study from SNL Metals & Minerals to demonstrate empirically the destruction of value which results from unnecessary, extended delays to project development,” said Pfleeger. “That study found that on average, a typical mining project loses over one-third of its economic value as a result of protracted delays in receiving the numerous permits needed to begin production. The longer the wait, the more the value of the investment is eroded, even to the extent that the project ultimately becomes an unviable investment. Even a large high-grade deposit will remain unmined if the balance between costs, revenue, and timetable are not favorable.”

Permitting Dashboard

Pfleeger notes that the government’s Permitting Dashboard is a significant tool to track infrastructure projects designated as Covered Projects under FAST-41. The Permitting Dashboard serves as a single point of reference for information on covered projects, where anyone can view the timetable schedule and status for all the environmental reviews and authorizations required for any covered project. Pfleeger stated that access to this information is an important step in expedited permitting.

“In addition to being a tool for transparency and accountability, the Dashboard plays an important role in process improvements,” testified Pfleeger. “FAST-41 requires Executive Director approval for certain modifications to the Permitting Dashboard timetables. These approvals help the agencies and Executive Director identify issues specific to a particular project, and with time, recurring bottlenecks for overlapping or contingent permitting processes.”

According to Pfleeger, the Permitting Dashboard played a role in permitting process improvements, including enhanced coordination and dispute resolution procedures, which helped save one project 6 months and $300 million in capital costs, as estimated by the project sponsor.

The Senate testimony is here.  

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