July 11, 2017 - After eight years of battling anti-mining policies being promulgated by the Obama Administration, the National Mining Association is cautiously optimistic about the positive change in the tone and substance of U.S. resource development policies since Donald Trump has moved into the White House.
“The November election ushered in a surprisingly swift and dramatic change, particularly in the way people in Washington D.C. view natural resources,” NMA President and CEO Hal Quinn said during a June 28 keynote speech at the Resource Development Council for Alaska annual membership luncheon in Anchorage.
The leader of the United States’ top mining advocacy group said the about face in the tone and substance emanating from the White House when it comes to mining policies extends to the nation’s resource sectors at large.
“For all resource industries things are changing and with the new administration there is a return of government that encourages responsible development and the use of all our natural resources,” Quinn told the Alaska resource community at the sold-out luncheon.
Quinn said there is no clearer sign of the dramatic change in this tone than seeing miners flank President Trump as he signs a resolution that overturns a midnight hour Obama administration rule that threatened U.S. coal miners with added regulatory burden.
This so-called Stream Protection Rule was touted by the Obama administration as a necessary clarification of the regulations surrounding valley fill, a mining technique used in Appalachia that involves depositing overburden removed from hilltops in an adjacent valley and then re-contouring the landscape after mining is complete.
Usibelli Coal Mine Inc., Alaska’s sole coal producers, had argued that this “one-size-fits-all” regulation attempts to address concerns in the eastern U.S. and apply them across the country, an approach that does not work for an area as unique as Alaska.
Less than a month after being sworn into office, Trump signed H.J. Resolution 38, which overturns what he called “another terrible job-killing rule.”
“Compliance costs for this rule would be over $50 million a year for the coal industry alone, and it’s unnecessary,” the President told the legislators and coal miners gathered to witness the signing.
“Do you recall something close to this happening in the last eight years?” Quinn asked the Alaska resource development community gathered in Anchorage, referring to the miners in attendance.
The NMA President said American miners have also been invited as guests of honor to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters;.
While Quinn anticipated that the Trump Administration would bring positive change for mining in the U.S., he said he never though he would witness a U.S. Labor Secretary stroll through the front doors of the NMA office in Washington D.C. and introduce himself.
Not only did Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta make a courtesy visit, but took the time to sit down with mining safety leaders meeting that day at the NMA office.
Trump’s signing of the energy independence executive order; and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s trip to Alaska as part of his department’s “focus on energy independence and energy dominance,” are other indicators of a new direction for resource development under Trump.
“So, the change is unmistakable,” Quinn said.
No Natural Resource Stepchildren
Quinn said Trump’s affinity for miners is genuine and extends to all U.S. industrial sectors that “make things that make this country great.”
“There are no natural resource stepchildren with this administration,” he said.
Mining’s sister sector, petroleum, is seeing the benefits of having a president that sees resource extraction as a key component of strengthening the U.S. economy.
“American energy dominance is the new policy for this administration,” Quinn said.
“I can’t think about a better place to be than right here in Alaska, the gateway for American energy dominance,” he added, to a rousing round of applause from the full house at the RDC luncheon.
This same sentiment was reflected in the words of Zinke during his tour of Alaska a month earlier.
“The only path for energy dominance is through the great state of Alaska,” the Interior Secretary told attendees of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association’s annual conference.
In a move aimed at advancing President Trump’s American first energy strategy, the Interior Department June 29 announced a new five-year national offshore oil and gas leasing program on the outer continental shelf.
“Offering more areas for energy exploration and responsible development was a cornerstone of the President’s campaign and this action is the first step in making good on that promise for offshore oil and gas,” Zinke said.
“Our country has a massive energy economy and we should absolutely wear it on our sleeves, rather than keep energy resources in the ground,” said Vincent DeVito, Zinke’s councilor for energy policy. “This work will encourage responsible energy exploration and production, in order to advance the United States' position as a global energy force and foster security for the benefit of the American citizenry."
Dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waters of the United States rule is a Trump priority that has implications that touches all resource sectors in the U.S.
Unveiled in 2015, WOTUS substantially expands the waters that fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by adding tributaries and neighboring wetlands upstream of waters already covered by federal law.
Tributaries under WOTUS would have included anything that remotely resembled a stream – a bed, bank, and ordinary high-water mark – even if it does not flow year-round. Nearby waters include wetlands and other watery features within 1,500 feet of navigable waters and sometimes such features within 4,000 feet of high-tide or high water mark of a stream also would have been covered under the rule.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the rule, preventing the new definition for U.S. waters from being implemented.
Upon signing the executive order to roll back WOTUS, Trump called the rule a “massive power grab” by the EPA.
“The EPA’s so-called ‘Waters of the United States’ rule is one of the worst examples of federal regulation, and it has truly run amok,” Trump said during the Feb. 28 signing of an executive order to do away with the rule.
Following up on the executive order, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt June 27 said his agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are proposing a rule that would rescind and recodify the Obama era WOTUS rule.
"We are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation's farmers and businesses," said Pruitt. "This is the first step in the two-step process to redefine 'waters of the U.S.' and we are committed to moving through this re-evaluation to quickly provide regulatory certainty, in a way that is thoughtful, transparent and collaborative with other agencies and the public."
The two-part plan involves unwinding the 2015 rule; and then looking at ways to recodify the definitions of WOTUS that provides states with more control over the waters in their jurisdictions.
“To me, this is an issue that is very important because it’s one that shows proximity does matter,” Quinn said.
Douglas Lamont, who is performing the duties of the assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, said the Army Corps of Engineers is working closely with and supporting the EPA during this two-part restructuring of WOTUS.
“As we go through the rulemaking process, we will continue to make the implementation of the Clean Water Act Section 404 regulatory program as transparent as possible for the regulated public,” he said.
Reducing the nearly decade long process to gain permits to develop a mine in the United States continues to be a top priority for NMA.
“Our federal permitting system is plagued by duplication, poor coordination and lack of accountability,” Quinn said during his speech in Anchorage.
Too often our policymakers confuse the length of review with the rigor of review,” he added.
Legislation introduced to the House and Senate by Rep. Mark Amodei and Sen. Dean Heller, both Republicans from Nevada, aim to reduce the time it takes to permit a U.S. mine to around 30 months, which would put the U.S. on par with other Western Mining countries such as Canada and Australia.
Known in both cases as the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2017, these sister bills define “strategic and critical minerals” as any minerals necessary for national security; energy infrastructure; transportation and other domestic infrastructure; and economic security of the United States.
These mine permitting bills have many similarities to Trump’s proposal to reduce the average time it takes to permit an infrastructure project from around a decade to two years.
“No longer can we allow these rules and regulations to tie down our economy, chain up our prosperity, and sap our great American spirit. That is why we will lift these restrictions and unleash the full potential of the United States of America,” the President vowed during a June 9 speech laying out his plans to reduce the infrastructure permitting timeframe.
“We will get rid of the redundancy and duplication that wastes your time and your money,” he added.
Quinn says similar reductions to mine permitting is vital to ensuring American steel, zinc and copper makes its way into the nation’s revitalized bridges, guardrails and electrical grid.
“For this massive undertaking to be successful, however, the nation’s miners must have efficient access to the mineral resources that effectively represent the front end of the supply chain for infrastructure renewal. Today that efficient access is thwarted by conflicting and duplicative permit reviews conducted by multiple federal and state agencies that create wasteful and unnecessary delays to mining projects of up to seven to 10 years,” Quinn said.
Caution and Optimism
While the NMA president is optimistic about the current climate in Washington D.C., he cautioned Alaska’s resource community about the dangers of complacency.
He, however, said it could take some time to ensure that any new policies survive future administrations that might not have as much affinity for miners.
“In the long run, we are best served by tempering some of our persistence with a bit of patience if we want these policy changes done right so they are durable,” he told the resource community in Anchorage.
Quinn believes this patience – coupled with the growth of new technologies demanding the gold, silver, copper, zinc, rare earth elements, graphite and other minerals abundant in Alaska – will pay dividends.
“Society needs you more than ever – the next opportunities are just around the corner,” he said.