This week, reason prevailed and the American minerals supply chain won. After being forced into a nonsensical rulemaking process born from environmental litigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided not to impose new, crippling financial responsibility requirements on the hardrock mining industry. Not only was there no justification for these requirements, but the Western states where the vast majority of the nation’s mining happens were up in arms over the proposal. That’s because they knew exactly what this regulation would have meant for mining investment and the related economic stimulus that it provides their states. And they know firsthand that protections are already in place, and are working.
Reacting to an environmental group’s lawsuit, the EPA released a proposal in 2016 that, if implemented, would have crippled the U.S. mining industry. Broadly speaking, it called for mining companies to provide duplicative financial assurance to cover speculative future clean-up costs. The problem is that mining companies are already providing these financial assurances—and are required to by law. And they are complying with modern environmental regulations and adopting best management practices to prevent post-operational impacts. It was a classic case of trying to fix what isn’t broken.
The current systems are working. In fact, since 1990 not a single mine approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the U.S. Forest Service has become a taxpayer liability. Between the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, and the states, several billion dollars have already been put aside in financial assurance bonds. Funds put aside by mining companies, adeptly managed on both the federal and state levels, are covering precisely what they need to cover.
As just one example, Hecla Mining Company, a 125-year-old silver mining company, has successfully permitted, built, and closed multiple mines in the United States, bringing much needed economic benefits to rural economies. However, with such a drain on financial resources as posed by the new EPA requirements, it’s less likely Hecla could have built these mines at all.
Imposing additional burdens would have taken us in the wrong direction. We should be looking to encourage domestic mining investment, not push it away. The future is increasingly materials-intensive, and we are woefully ill-prepared for it. Just this summer, the World Bank released a new report, titled “The Growing Role of Minerals and Metals in a Low-Carbon Future.” Wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries are all incredibly reliant on minerals and metals. We are going to need far more mining, not less.
And yet the U.S. has been sliding into increased import dependence on far too many of the minerals and metals that are essential to our economy. Despite abundant resources of our own, the U.S. imported roughly $32 billion worth of processed minerals in 2015. We are now faced with 100 percent import reliance for 20 key minerals and a 50 percent or more import reliance on an additional 30 minerals.
The EPA was right in determining that additional regulation was not needed for a system that currently works. And in making this decision, the U.S. is better positioned to encourage utilization of domestic minerals for infrastructure and manufacturing, reducing our minerals and metals import dependence.
Phillips S. Baker Jr. is CEO of Hecla Mining Company in Coeur d’Alene.