Push to shorten U.S. mine permit review process gains steam

FILE PHOTO: A fan, center, works above Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in Montcoal

By Ernest Scheyder and Valerie Volcovici

(Reuters) – U.S. mining companies, automakers and a bipartisan group of congressional members are recommending that the federal government cut the time needed to permit a new mine in order to boost domestic production of electric vehicle minerals.

The requests, submitted this week to a committee that will propose changes to the General Mining Law of 1872, comes amid rising pressure on the EV industry to procure lithium, copper and other minerals from domestic or ally sources.

The Interagency Working Group on Mining Reform has been studying ways to change the law, which governs hardrock mining on U.S. government land, since February. Public comments were due this week. Any changes would need to be approved by the full U.S. Congress and President Joe Biden.

“Today’s lengthy, costly, and inefficient permitting process makes it difficult for American businesses to invest in the extraction and processing of critical minerals in the United States,” Chris Smith, Ford Motor Co’s chief government affairs officer, wrote to the committee.

Ford, which has lithium supply deals with Nevada’s ioneer and Utah’s Compass Minerals International Inc, asked for faster mine permitting, greater transparency in the review process and a boost to federal funding of geological mapping.

EV maker Rivian Automotive Inc said it supports mine permitting reform “done in a more efficient and coordinated way.”

State and federal approval for a mine can take more than a decade, compared to an average of a few years in Canada and Australia, which have large mining sectors.

Conservationists said the U.S. mining law is decades overdue for reform and should instead be changed to require more recycling as well as focusing better on ways to mitigate mining’s effect on host communities, avoiding some of the negative effects of fossil fuel production.

“Mining companies are frankly abusing the opportunity here to say that mining is the only way forward to get the minerals we need,” said Blaine Miller-McFeeley of Earthjustice.

Ford’s requests were echoed by the National Mining Association (NMA), the trade group for U.S. miners, who also asked that a net royalty for minerals extracted on federal land be set, rather than a royalty on gross income. There are no existing royalties for companies that mine on federal land, much to the chagrin of conservationists.

The NMA is also asking for so-called Good Samaritan legislation that would indemnify a company from legal liability if it rehabilitates an old mine site. Perpetua Resources Corp, for example, is trying to redevelop Idaho’s Stibnite Gold project, which was polluted by World War Two-era mining.

Freeport-McMoRan Inc, the largest U.S. copper producer, recommended that the red metal be added to a list of minerals considered critical for the nation’s defense and economy.

Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto and Arizona Senator Mark Kelly signed a bipartisan letter to the committee asking for a more-streamlined mine permitting process. Proposed mines in Nevada from Lithium Americas Corp and Arizona from Rio Tinto Ltd have been under development for more than a decade.

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder and Valerie Volcovici; Additional reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Nick Zieminski)