The chances of the US Congress passing a
bill to expedite the country’s lengthy mine
permitting process are slimming as the time before the end of
the current congressional cycle runs out.
Legislation to reduce the
country’s seven-to-10 year average mine permitting
period is part of an energy bill now in conferencing stage
following the passage of the National Strategic and
Critical Minerals Production Act of 2015 through the
House of Representatives last October and the Energy Policy Modernization
Act of 2016 through the Senate in April (both bills
were analysed by IM following their
US legislative practice means that once
both houses of Congress pass related bills they must be
conferenced by negotiators on both sides, with a compromise
bill ultimately agreed on for signing by the US president
– if an acceptable middle ground can be reached.
It had been hoped that negotiations would
have led to an agreement on a compromise bill by now, but this
has not been the case and politicians are currently on recess,
due to return early next month after Labor Day (5
"We hoped something would happen before the August recess, but
it hasn’t," Katie Sweeney, general counsel at the
National Mining Association, told IM.
|Mining groups had
hoped the US congress would have passed conferenced
legislation to expedite the country's lengthy permitting
process by now. Time to agree on a compromise bill is
running out. (Image Source:
She added that the bills are "definitely conference-able"
and said she was still hopeful of the permitting legislation
Conferees from both parties and both
houses have been named and the "easy decisions" as to what is
on the table for negotiation from both bills have been decided,
Laura Skaer, executive director of the American Exploration and
Mining Association, told IM.
The provisions of both bills relating to
permitting reform are among those that remain "on the table"
Skaer noted, but the chances of a bill passing have dropped
from 70:30 to 50:50 she said. And even if a bill is passed,
there is no guarantee that the permitting elements will be
"My personal view is if they
don’t get it done in the four weeks
they’re back in September, it’s not
going to happen," said Skaer.
An October break followed by the November
elections will rule out further conferencing before legislators
return to a "lame duck" Congress, where passing a bill to keep
the government funded will dominate proceedings.
Once a new president takes office in
January, both bills become void, meaning both houses would have
to return to the drawing board.
Sweeney however believes there is a
possibility of progress right up to the last day of Congress,
driven by Senator Lisa Murkowski, sponsor of the Senate
For her part, Skaer remains hopeful that a
desire to appear active ahead of the election will push members
of congress to complete the process as soon as possible,
"especially with all the rhetoric about how Congress never does
anything", she said.
The length of time taken to permit a
mining operation has been a bone of contention in the US for
some time, with a report by SNL Metals and Mining finding that
it takes an average of seven-to-10 years to obtain permits to
commence operations in the US, compared to two years in Canada
The SNL paper also found that the US
accounts for just 7% of worldwide spending on mineral
exploration, "despite being home to abundant mineral resources"
and that a typical mining project loses more than one third of
its value as a result of bureaucratic delays in receiving the
permits needed to begin production.
The bill passed by the House of
Representatives last year was the latest in a series of
attempts to deal with the permitting issue. But in recent years
the Senate had not followed suit, meaning that the passage of
the bill in the upper house this year marked the "furthest the
legislation has ever made it," according to Sweeney.
The two bills are markedly different,
The House of Representatives
bill seeks to cap the time taken to approve or disapprove a
permit at 30 months, coordinate the process better and limit
"It tries to give predictability and
certainty. You have 30 months to make a decision. It
doesn’t require a yes," Rep. Mark Amodei, a
Republican congressman for Nevada and the sponsor of the House
bill, told IM at the time.
The Senate bill is a
slightly "watered down" version of this, according to Sweeney.
"It has process to stop delay, best management practices and a
lot to whittle down bureaucracy. But it is a lot more
aspirational in nature," Sweeney previously
The bills also differ in terms of their
definitions of what minerals are "critical" – and, as
a result, under the purview of the legislation.
The House bill proposes a broad
definition, with proponents arguing that the critical nature of
a given mineral may change quickly, something that provoked
criticism from the environmental lobby.
The Senate bill calls for the US
Department of the Interior to formulate a methodology to
determine what is critical and apply and update it each
Which elements of each bill make it
through to the conferenced compromise energy bill remain to be
The Democrats, for their part, will be
pushing for renewable energy and efficiency-related elements to
appear in the final draft.
"We’ll see what kind of horse
trading gets done," said Skaer.
Members of Congress return to legislative
work on 6 September, following the Labor Day holiday.
The US is home to a wide range of mineral
resources, including lime, sand and gravel, vanadium, potash,
phosphate, salt, diatomite, perlite, wollastonite, soda ash,
barite, bentonite, bromine and lithium.