House votes to streamline federal mining permit process

The House approved legislation Thursday that would require federal agencies to take no longer than 30 months to make decisions related to mining permits, and limit the ability of groups to mount legal challenges against these permits.

Members voted 256-160 in favor of H.R. 4402, the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act. Twenty-two Democrats voted with Republicans in favor of the bill, after several Democrats argued during debate that the bill would unacceptably ease environmental rules.

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Under the bill, federal agencies would have to make an effort to minimize delays in the mining permitting process. This includes making a finding that proposed projects should not be subject to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) standards, if it can be determined that agency guidelines and/or state guidelines are enough to "ensure that environmental factors are taken into account."

It would also require civil suits against granted permits to be filed within 60 days after they are granted.

Republicans said these changes are needed to help the United States keep pace with the rest of the world in producing minerals seen as key to manufacturing and national security.

"Burdensome red tape, duplicative reviews, frivolous lawsuits and onerous regulations can hold up new mining projects for more than a decade," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.). "These unnecessary delays cost American jobs, as we become more and more dependent on foreign countries for raw ingredients to fuel manufacturing and our economy.

"This a jobs bill, and the positive economic impact of this bill's intent will extend beyond the mining industry," he added.

Democrats argued that the bill would go too far in easing environmental rules. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) rejected the possibility of exempting some projects from environmental review under NEPA.

"The whole idea of the National Environmental Protection Act is that there would be an independent review that involves public input, input from all affected interests, and input from somebody who speaks for the land, and somebody who speaks for the trees," Holt said.

But Republicans, including bill sponsor Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), said the bill still gives federal agencies plenty of time to make decisions for or against permitting decisions.

"What's the problem with two and a half years to talk about the permit?" Amodei asked. "What's the problem with providing some predictability to the timing of the permitting process? What's the problem with not stringing people out under NEPA for over a decade for mine decisions?"

There are 17 minerals that are generally accepted as "rare earth" minerals that the bill would cover. But the bill is broader than that, covering minerals that support manufacturing, housing, transportation and other sectors, as well as those important for economic security and the balance of trade.

Democrats said the bill would ease the federal regulatory process for all mining companies, not just those involved in rare-earth minerals or those seen as providing a strategic advantage.

"The bill we are considering today is so broadly drafted, where apparently sand and gravel and crushed stone are considered rare and strategic, that the majority actually appears to be trying to usher in a new stone age," Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said.

Just before the final vote, the House rejected a Democratic amendment to limit the list of minerals for which mining permits could be streamlined under the bill. The House also rejected all five Democratic amendments offered to the bill.

House passage sends the bill to a Democratic Senate that is likely to ignore the bill. On Tuesday, the Obama administration said it "strongly opposes" the bill because of its implications for the environment, and agreed with House Democrats that it would streamline permitting procedures for nearly all hardrock mining.

The White House did not, however, say it would veto the bill.