Bill that would streamline mine permitting, curb lawsuits passes House
Written byMANUEL QUINONES, Greenwire
The House Thursday voted 256-160 to pass legislation that would streamline permitting and reduce litigation for hardrock mines on public lands, a top priority of the mining industry.
Twenty-two Democrats crossed the aisle to back Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei's bill, H.R. 4402, which would require the federal government to promote the domestic production of materials it describes as necessary for economic development and national security.
The measure would also limit the time for permit reviews and legal challenges and impose new restraints on court injunctions on projects and attorneys' fees connected to environmental lawsuits.
"Burdensome red tape, duplicative reviews, frivolous lawsuits and onerous regulations can hold up new mining projects for more than a decade," House Natural Resources Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings said.
"These unnecessary delays," the Washington Republican added, "cost Americans jobs as we become more and more dependent on foreign countries for raw ingredients to fuel manufacturing and our economy."
Critics questioned the legislation's true intent. Unlike other critical material measures -- including H.R. 2011, which passed the Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support last year -- the Amodei proposal broadly defines "critical materials" (E&E Daily, July 11).
"This legislation would reshape mining decisions on public lands for almost all minerals," said the top Democrat on the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt.
Natural Resources ranking member Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said the bill's sponsors were using the critical materials issue "as pretext for cutting environmental protections related to virtually all mining operations."
Republicans defended the bill's scope by pointing out the important uses of simple materials, including sand and gravel. Amodei asked, "What's the problem with providing some predictability to the permitting process?"
Hastings strongly pushed back at Democratic claims that the legislation has measures to scrap environmental reviews. He shouted on the House floor, "What page? What page?"
Democrats scrambled to respond. "Section 102 is where they are," Holt said. "Right in the front of the bill."
Later he added, "They could say, no public comments are permitted."
A new report by Behre Dolbear Group Inc. -- a mineral industry advisory firm -- ranked the United States last among mining countries on permitting.
"Permitting delays are the most significant risk to mining projects in the United States," the report says. "A few mining friendly states are an exception to this rule but are negatively impacted by federal rules that they are bound to enforce resulting in a 7 to 10 year waiting period before mine development can begin."
National Mining Association CEO Hal Quinn praised the bill's passage, noting that U.S. dependence on mineral imports has doubled in the past two decades.
"Today, less than half of the mineral needs of U.S. manufacturing are met from domestically mined minerals," Quinn said in a statement. "These trends will only get worse if we do not advance policies that enable U.S. mining to perform to its potential."
But environmental groups and their backers say the Behre Dolbear report still puts the United States in the top 10 list of best countries for investing. And an analysis by Democratic staffers says mine plan approvals are moving forward 17 percent faster under the Obama administration than under President George W. Bush. Some approvals are coming in months, they said.
"This is a solution in search of a problem," Markey said of the bill.
Roadless rule exception
House lawmakers approved GOP-led amendments to apply the legislation retroactively to certain permit reviews. They also passed Rep. Don Young's (R-Alaska) measure to allow for the exemption of certain mining and support activities from roadless rules in national forestland.
"The continued protection of this areas is something people all over America care about," said Holt in opposition. "This is in the national interest. And continued protection of these areas is common sense."
While the roadless rule ensures mineral production in forests, Republicans say mines -- including a rare earth deposit in Alaska -- don't have enough leeway for mine access and support.
The amendment passed 238-178.
"All I'm asking is access for the American people," Young said, "for this mineral deposit, for the American people."
The House rejected all Democratic amendments, including measures to reform the hardrock mining system by imposing a 12.5 percent royalty and exemptions to attorneys' fees limitations. Lawmakers also voted down an effort to narrow the bill's scope.
The White House is on record opposing the legislation. And as with other House GOP efforts at streamlining environmental reviews for energy and mineral production, the Democrat-led Senate is likely to block the Amodei bill.
"This measure is just another sad attempt by the House to extract our natural resources as quickly as possible without consideration of future generations," said Scott Slesinger, Natural Resources Defense Council legislative director. "The bill should not see the light of day in the Senate."