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Vol. 19, No. 30 Week of July 27, 2014
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

Mining News: Stalled critical minerals bills get a push

Private sector coalition urges Capitol Hill lawmakers to move legislation meant to encourage domestic mining of vital minerals

Shane Lasley

Mining News

A coalition of 38 companies and organizations, representing a broad spectrum of America’s economy, is urging lawmakers on Capitol Hill to dust off pending critical minerals legislation and send a version to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature.

“Updating our geologic data, reducing delays in permitting, bolstering research, and encouraging efficient use can pay dividends for future generations,” explains the group pressing for critical minerals legislation.

Two such bills aimed at reducing the United States’ foreign reliance on minerals deemed critical to the nation, both of which have garnered bi-partisan support, have stalled in the Senate.

The coalition of 38 – which is Spearheaded by Minerals Make Life, an initiative of the National Mining Association, and includes a diverse group of signatories that ranges from global corporations such Dow Chemical Co. to local civic groups such as Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce – is doing its part to get these bills moving again.

In a letter addressed to leaders in both the House and Senate, the group urged U.S. lawmakers to pass legislation that would encourage the domestic mining of minerals that are critical to the United States.

“Our organizations represent nearly every sector of the American economy, including defense, energy, transportation, infrastructure, agriculture, technology, academia, electronics, finance, and medicine,” the group explained in its June letter to Capitol Hill lawmakers. “From exploration to recycling, we are active in the supply chains for nearly every commodity. As a result, we have a unique perspective on the public policies needed for reliable, affordable, and secure sources of raw materials. Updating our geologic data, reducing delays in permitting, bolstering research, and encouraging efficient use can pay dividends for future generations.”

According to the alliance, critical minerals legislation will bolster America’s national and economic security, create jobs, and reduce America’s reliance on foreign countries. Urging bipartisan support, the letter said more timely permitting can be achieved “that is consistent with our nation’s environmental regulations” and which will “allow the United States to leverage its world-class mineral reserves.”

Changing the dynamic

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, welcomed the new and renewed support for the passage of critical minerals legislation.

“This letter puts nearly 40 groups and organizations on record as supporting not just their members, but our nation’s security, competitiveness, and future growth,” Murkowski said in a July 9 statement. “I thank them for their support and commend their continued engagement on this issue.”

Among those that signed on is the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, a trade association that strives to promote responsible exploration, development and production of oil, gas and mineral resources for the benefit of Sen. Murkowski’s home state.

Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced “The Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2013” for Senate consideration in October of last year.

“We have got to change the dynamic here, in this country, with how we view the importance of minerals to our nation,” Murkowski told the mining community in Alaska shortly after introducing this legislation, S.B. 1600. “We can’t move forward until Washington (D.C.) gets out of our way.”

A bipartisan group of 18 senators – 10 Democrats and eight Republicans – have signed on as cosponsors of S.B. 1600.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., an original S.B. 1600 co-sponsor, said, “So many parts of our 21st Century economy depend on critical minerals that it just makes sense to bring federal policies up to date. This bill creates a more secure domestic supply chain for critical minerals, and makes sure that our country’s national defense, high-tech jobs, energy security and advanced medical care are not held hostage by foreign suppliers.”

S.B. 1600 seeks to address the critical minerals supply chain by establishing a list of up to 20 minerals to be deemed critical, streamlining the federal permitting process, prioritizing workforce development, and promoting alternatives and recycling.

Instituting a list of minerals that is widely accepted as critical to the United States has proven to be a challenge – partially because the list is dynamic, shifting with changes on either the supply or demand sides of the equation, and partially because of biases towards particular sectors such as defense, energy or manufacturing.

Broadly speaking, a mineral is deemed critical when it is both important to a nation’s security or economy, and is at risk of becoming unobtainable in the quantities needed.

According to the United States Geological Survey, during 2013, the United States was 100 percent dependent on foreign suppliers for 17 mineral commodities and more than 50 percent dependent on foreign sources for at least 24 others.

Several of the minerals for which the United States is heavily reliant on foreign sources are not prospects for criticality due to their scant use. Others, however, are important ingredients to military applications such as fighter jets, lasers and radar systems and night vision equipment; green technology applications such as wind turbines, solar panels and hybrid cars; and high-tech consumer goods like mobile phones and iPads.

Almost everyone agrees that at least some of the 17 rare earth elements should be deemed critical due their importance to the high tech, defense and clean energy sectors. Dysprosium, terbium, europium, yttrium and neodymium are among the REEs that typically enter the critical minerals discussion. A study completed by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2010 listed all of these rare earths as critical to clean energy.

Less common than rare earths, indium and gallium are also contenders for minerals deemed critical to the United States. Other minerals that can be found in abundance but are not mined in the U.S. and often enter the critical mineral conversation are graphite and manganese.

If S.B. 1600 was to become law and once a list of critical minerals is established, this legislation lays out a comprehensive set of policies to address issues associated with the discovery, production, use, and re-use of the resources.

The United States is dependent on China as a primary source of a number of these high-tech metals.

“We don’t want to be sitting in a situation where the Chinese are making all of the decisions as to what we are going to be manufacturing – how, when and where – because they have access to all the critical minerals,” Murkowski said. “We have got them here; we just need the ability to develop them.”

Limiting delays

Another piece of critical minerals legislation, “National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013,” garnered wide support in the House before getting bogged down alongside S.B. 1600 in the Senate.

Introduced by Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nevada, H.R. 761 aims to “enhance government coordination for the permitting process by avoiding duplicative reviews, minimizing paperwork and engaging other agencies and stakeholders early in the process” for strategic and critical mineral projects.

The bill defines strategic and critical minerals as minerals necessary; for national defense and security; for energy infrastructure; to support domestic manufacturing, agriculture, housing, telecommunications, healthcare and transportation infrastructure; or for the economic security of the United States.

To streamline the permitting process, H.R. 761 would designate any proposed mines that would produce strategic and critical minerals as infrastructure projects as described by Executive Order 13604, “Improving Performance of Federal Permitting and Review of Infrastructure Projects,” signed by President Obama in March 2012.

The infrastructure designation would allow strategic and critical mineral projects to benefit from executive order objective to “significantly reduce the aggregate time required to make decisions in the permitting and review of infrastructure projects by the federal government, while improving environmental and community outcomes.”

“What it simply says is this: ‘During the permitting process, there has to be a decision made within 30 days’,” Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. summarized during a keynote speech at the Alaska Miners Association 2013 Convention held in Anchorage last November.

The legislation also attempts to limit litigation delays by setting a 60-day time limit to file legal challenges against a critical minerals project; limits injunctive relief to what is necessary to correct the violation of a legal requirement; and prohibits the payment of attorney’s fees, expenses and other costs by the U.S. taxpayer.

H.R. 761 nabbed 57 co-sponsors and passed the House 246-148. The legislation, however, has not moved since being sent to the Senate in September of last year.

“We have passed it out of the House, and we are waiting for action in the Senate. And, since I am a member of the House, I can say we wait on the Senate a lot,” quipped Hastings.

The group of businesses and organizations led by Minerals Make Life are hopeful their letter will get critical minerals legislation moving again.

“Now is an opportune moment to advance policies that benefit vast swaths of the American economy and enjoy broad support,” the coalition of 38 wrote in their letter of support. “A great deal of time and effort has been devoted to the advancement of critical minerals legislation, a strong record has been built reflecting the urgency of this challenge, and the time has come to take next steps.”

“This is the perfect time to update our nation’s mineral policies,” Murkowski concurred. “We have bipartisan and cost-neutral legislation that is ready to be considered. We have no reason to wait, or to forgo the tremendous benefits that critical minerals legislation would provide throughout our economy.”

Murkowski and fellow lawmakers that would like to see the United States adopt critical minerals legislation now have private sector help in making it happen.

“We remain hopeful that critical minerals legislation can be signed into law soon and stand ready to help make it happen,” vowed the coalition of 38.

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