Rebuilding U.S. Infrastructure Will Require Better Access to Minerals and Metals

For a White House often accused of being divisive, President Trump may yet bring warring parties together on a major initiative that few voters will oppose. In his ‘State of the Union’ address last month, the president declared a major priority of his administration will be the rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure.
Offering free ice cream at a summer camp could scarcely meet with greater enthusiasm than pledging to repair and renew the failing highways, bridges, and railroads that frustrate commuters and slow the economy. The American Society of Civil Engineers confirms what most of us suspect: our infrastructure is worn out, and major investment is needed to modernize it.
While roads and bridges are the most visible part of an infrastructure rebuild, there’s also a pressing need to expand shipping ports and to improve inland waterways. If America hopes to sell more goods overseas, and to reduce its massive trade deficit, we must move our commodities to market more efficiently. All of this will be costly, though. Last year, the Journal of Commerce reported that the nation’s ports need more than $100 billion in expansion and improvement.
As Congress debates how to pay for infrastructure, it should also address policy changes that will be necessary to rebuild it. A good start would be to streamline the various time-consuming and bureaucratic permit processes that hamper major projects. Utility companies, for example, are often willing to make substantial investments in upgraded power plant efficiency and environmental performance. But they are often stymied by protracted permit approvals that can render such investment uneconomic.
Nowhere is this inefficiency more glaring, however, than in the process for approving mine permits. It often takes seven to 10 years for a mineral or metal mine to get a green light from multiple federal agencies. Each agency has its own timeline, staff, and approach for requiring compliance—with dozens of laws and regulations to follow. And obstructionists can often hold up the process for the most trifling of considerations.
Mining-rich regions like Canada and Australia, with similar environmental standards, typically issue permit decisions within 18 to 24 months. That ensures needed metals get to market more efficiently, even as mining companies get a return on their investment and the environment is protected. There’s no reason the U.S., with world-class mineral resources valued at approximately $6.2 trillion, can’t implement a world-class permitting process.
This brings us to the country’s infrastructure needs, where the implications of permit delays are obvious. From iron and steel for new bridges, to copper, zinc, and other metals required for transit, Internet, and power systems, the nation’s mining industry will be busy rebuilding our industrial foundation. And they’ll be tasked with extracting a wide array of needed resources, including the silver for electrical systems and water filtration, plus the molybdenum for structural alloys used in large buildings.
Fortunately, the United States possesses vast mineral resources. But we don’t have timely access to them. Instead, our mine permit process locks these valuable resources in the ground. Engineering consultants who rate the world’s mining regions frequently find that the U.S. permit system remains among the slowest and least efficient in the developed world.
Without timely access to metals for building and repairing the nation’s roads and bridges, costs will increase, projects will be stuck on hold, new employment will slow, and our reliance on imported metals from  less reliable and politically unstable countries will continue to grow. Already the U.S. relies on imports for half of the metals required by industry.
Smart infrastructure investment can reach across the mining, steelmaking, construction, and energy sectors, providing a win-win for Americans of all political stripes. It will be a big task, but one we can achieve more easily and at far less cost if Washington ensures timely access to the nation’s mineral wealth.
Hal Quinn is president and CEO of the National Mining Association

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