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Critical Minerals Are a U.S. Priority—So Why Is Permitting Slow?

The Biden administration has called for expanding the supply of critical minerals in the U.S.—but it halted or interrupted several mine projects, according to POLITICO Pro’s GREENWIRE (subscription).

What’s going on: The administration has stopped the Pebble mine in Alaska, the Twin Metals mine in Minnesota and a titanium mine in Georgia.

  • It is also moving slowly on smaller mining endeavors, with the Bureau of Land Management having approved only 20 mine plans since President Biden took office.
  • The BLM’s permitting backlog is at more than 280 projects.

Why it’s important: Republicans and Democrats alike have made domestic production of critical minerals—a group of some 50 metals critical to the U.S. economy and national security—a keystone of energy policy.

  • Clean energy technologies “rely heavily on supplies of metals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and graphite, but the global supply chain for all five metals is dominated by Chinese industry.”
  • Bank of America Corp.’s global research division recently released a report estimating that “the mining industry would need to spend a whopping $81 billion annually in order to prevent ‘bottlenecks to achieving net zero’ by 2050.”

Huge potential: “Nevada is chock-full of lithium potential and experiencing a jolt in exploration for the metal. One company in Idaho is trying to mine the state’s ‘cobalt belt.’ Others in Alaska want to develop a coastal graphite deposit that could be one of the world’s largest—a hypothetical boon for U.S. battery makers.”

However . . . mining these materials can often require a lengthy environmental review at the federal level.

  • “The actions we have seen from the administration have really been contrary to providing that domestic mineral production,” said Mark Compton, executive chairman for the American Exploration & Mining Association. “Right now, permitting is still creating an unfavorable environment for attracting mining investment in the United States.”

How to fix it: “The Energy Department released a sweeping analysis of supply chain risks in February that listed streamlined permitting as the No. 1 recommendation to address scant supplies of raw materials for the energy transition.”

  • Part of the reconciliation deal that Democratic leaders struck with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) required the Senate to consider a separate package of permitting reforms this fall.
  • And last week, a more detailed list of those measures was released, including time limits on reviews, changes to stop states from blocking projects and “giving a federal permitting council explicit oversight of mining projects.”

In related news . . . The Department of Energy has committed $675 million to fixing the critical minerals supply chain, issuing a request for information on Tuesday for a “critical materials research, development, demonstration and commercialization program,” also according to POLITICO Pro (subscription).

The NAM’s take: “Manufacturers in America have endured red tape and abusive litigation for decades, and manufacturers know what happens when endless delays block critical infrastructure: we lose out on modern manufacturing jobs,” said NAM Vice President of Energy and Resources Policy Rachel Jones.

  • “The NAM will continue pushing policymakers to deliver smart permit reforms that strengthen environmental stewardship while speeding infrastructure investment and expanding manufacturing here in the United States.”
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