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US climate policy, mining reform efforts on possible collision course

SNL Image

Four House Democrats, including Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan (middle left), chat as they wait for the beginning of a hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services at Rayburn House Office Building June 23, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Slotkin and 13 other Democrats recently wrote U.S. President Joe Biden asking for faster mine approvals at the federal level.
Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images News via Getty Images


Progress on U.S. climate policy could conflict with a push by the Biden administration to re-examine mining regulations, setting up a possible showdown between environmental groups and moderate Democrats.

While the Biden administration wants to build domestic production of materials deemed critical for the renewable energy transition, officials also committed to tougher mining standards.

On June 8, the Biden administration joined a chorus of environmental conservation groups calling for tighter environmental and labor standards for new mines that would supply lithium, nickel, copper and other metals used to make lithium-ion batteries. Updating mining laws and regulations would make a growing U.S. clean energy sector more competitive on a global scale, according to a pair of reports from the U.S. Defense Department and U.S. Energy Department.

Such action had been requested by major environmental groups starting in March. But days after the White House announcement, 14 moderate House Democrats, including lawmakers from areas of the Industrial Midwest, such as Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, wrote U.S. President Joe Biden with a different request: The government should hasten approvals for mines in order to support U.S. industries in the green economy, like solar energy siting or electric car manufacturing.

"Reducing timeframes and streamlining permitting efficiencies — without eroding environmental and safety protections — will incentivize greater private investment in all types of domestic infrastructure and manufacturing processes," the June 15 letter stated, which was obtained by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

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Amid these requests for action on mining policy, the White House is establishing an interagency team composed of staff from the U.S. Interior and Agriculture Departments and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as individuals with expertise in mine permitting and environmental law, White House spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a June 24 email.

The team will identify gaps in federal laws and statutes that may need to be updated by Congress in order to make sure mine production "meets strong standards before mining begins, during the mining process and after mining ends," Patel said.

It will also ensure "meaningful" community engagement and consultation with Native American nations while working to fully explore opportunities to "reduce the time, cost and risk of permitting without compromising strong environmental and consultation benchmarks," Patel said.

As lawmakers engaged in talks over various pieces of legislation during the first half of 2021, regulators unilaterally took actions on climate change that raised concerns among the business community, including a pause on oil and gas leasing and the curtailment of the Keystone XL pipeline. And regulators are now setting their sights on mining policy, indicating their intentions to draft fresh health and environmental standards on digging for materials required to build a greener economy.

Making both sides happy

In interviews, representatives of national environmental groups said the reports from the Energy and Defense departments indicated that the administration will bring the same level of scrutiny to hard-rock mining that it delivered to coal, a fossil fuel historically mined in greater quantities within the U.S. than green economy metals such as copper or nickel.

"We are extraordinarily pleased that they explicitly call out the need to reform our mining laws and regulations," Blaine Miller-McFeeley, a senior legislative representative at Washington, D.C.-based environmental law firm Earthjustice, said in an interview. "It is important to update these mining regulations."

But the mining industry had a different take on the reports, seeing them instead as an opening for the streamlined mine approvals requested in the Democratic representatives' letter.

The National Mining Association, a Washington industry group that represents some of the country's largest mining companies, hailed a Defense Department recommendation that the government should focus on securing a strategic supply of so-called critical minerals, which are mined materials considered essential to national and economic security. Association President and CEO Rich Nolan praised the Pentagon in a June 21 op-ed for Morning Consult.

"Where the Department of Energy advocates to revisit the laws that govern mining projects, the Department of Defense acknowledges the extensive network of federal, state and local regulations that already expand the permitting process to a decade or more," the executive wrote.

Tougher standards, more scrutiny

Yet this call for faster mine permitting clashed with a recommendation by the Energy Department that the EPA set tougher standards for new mines.

Specifically, the EPA was called on to use its powers under environmental law to "hold raw mineral production to modern environmental standards, require best-practice labor conditions and proceed with meaningful consultation with affected communities, including Tribal nations, in government-to-government collaboration."

When reached for comment on this section of the report, an EPA spokesperson said in an email that the agency "looks forward to working with our colleagues" in the administration to execute the recommendations in the two reports. The EPA's recommendations are not yet being implemented, according to the White House.

The U.S. Forest Service, which oversees mining activity on federal forestland, is also considering changes to hard-rock mining rules. The Forest Service is reviewing its mining regulations, "which have not seen a significant revision since 1974," spokesperson Babete Anderson said in an email.

"While it is too early in the process to determine what those revisions may be," the agency is looking to "modernize" requirements for the financial assurances implemented on miners for reclaiming abandoned mines, Anderson wrote.

Government agencies under Biden have also proven willing to scrutinize individual projects that were fast-tracked under the Trump administration. Regulators paused a land exchange for the proposed Resolution copper mine in Arizona, a 55/45 joint venture between Rio Tinto Group and BHP Group, and started reviewing the legality of lease renewals for the proposed Maturi copper mine in Minnesota led by Antofagasta PLC subsidiary Twin Metals Minnesota LLC.

Those moves have given conservationists optimism that the Biden administration will enact tougher mine regulations while crafting policies on climate action.

"We are confident that the administration recognizes mining critical minerals can't come at the expense of our most treasured places," Drew McConville, senior managing director at The Wilderness Society, said in an interview.