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Why permitting reform really is key to our clean energy future

A parking spot reserved for electric vehicles is seen in the parking lot of a metro station in Norwalk, Calif., Monday, Aug. 29, 2022. Discounted prices, car-share programs, and a robust network of public charging stations are among the ways California will try to make electric vehicles affordable and convenient for people of all income levels as it phases out the sale of new gas cars by 2035. Advocates for the policy say the switch from gas- to battery-powered cars is a necessary step to reducing pollution in disadvantaged neighborhoods, but that the state make sure those residents can access the cars, too.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The clean energy revolution is on our doorstep. The last few years have seen an unprecedented level of both public and private investment in clean energy, in the U.S. and abroad. From next-generation nuclear energy to battery storage technology, American innovation is paving the way for a cleaner future.

Yet, this future is at serious risk. A recent Princeton study found that more than 80 percent of the emissions reductions potential of the Inflation Reduction Act, for example, would be wasted if we didn’t make it easier to build the infrastructure necessary to expand clean energy. As climate activists are finding out, permitting reform is the lynchpin to unlocking our energy future.

Right now, we’re very far from that future. On average, the current permitting process delays projects by 4.5 years. This disproportionately impacts the clean energy projects that are trying to get off the ground. In fact, of all the projects currently delayed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), over 80 percent are clean energy projects such as transmission lines, as well as wind and solar farms, while only 19 percent are fossil fuels. We’re essentially making it impossible to build the clean energy infrastructure we need to reduce emissions and bolster our energy security.

But permitting reform for infrastructure is only one part of the puzzle; our outdated regulatory process impacts the energy transition in another key aspect. To build energy infrastructure and clean technologies, we need so-called “critical minerals.” From electric vehicles (EVs) and solar panels, to military equipment and medical devices, these minerals are used in almost every sector imaginable: technology, defense, energy, transportation, healthcare, manufacturing and more. They’re especially important for clean energy technologies, with demand for critical minerals projected to increase by as much as 1,000 percent in the next few decades as a result of clean energy growth. Certain key components, such as lithium, nickel and graphite, are expected to exceed even that.

It’s clear that we need a lot more of these minerals if we want to achieve our energy goals. Unfortunately, however, we are nowhere near making that happen. A few weeks ago, the United States Geological Survey released its annual Mineral Commodity Summaries report — and the results were worrying. They found that the U.S. has reached a record level of import-reliance for critical minerals, meaning that we are more reliant on other countries for our mineral needs than at any other time in our history.

In 2021, when the previous record was set, the U.S. was more than 50 percent import-reliant for 47 different minerals. This year, that number jumped to 51 minerals, while we are 100 percent import-reliant for 15 of them. Worryingly, China is the world’s largest exporter of these minerals, supplying 80 percent of America’s rare earth material imports for example. This dependence is bad news for national security; over-reliance on Chinese supply chains risks ceding the market for wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and EVs to China. Manish Negam, an analyst at Credit Suisse, warns that these clean energy technologies will suffer the most from critical mineral supply chain disruptions. If the U.S. fails to rapidly expand domestic mineral production, we risk material shortages or soaring prices, which could jeopardize the deployment of the very technologies we need to reduce emissions.

Yet, we’ve made it nearly impossible to mine for critical minerals in the U.S., due to outdated regulations, it takes an average of 10 years for a company to receive government approval to start mining, which is one of the longest wait periods in the world. In some cases, it can get even worse. Perpetua Resources, a company based in Idaho, has reportedly waited 17 years to get mining approval after discovering antimony, a mineral important for electric batteries, at one of its sites.

Similarly to permitting reform for energy infrastructure, we need permitting reform for critical mineral mining.

Bills such as the Securing America’s Critical Minerals Supply Act, championed by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairwoman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and House Natural Resources Chairman Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), would go a long way toward strengthening our supply chains and reducing our reliance on countries like China. Similarly, Rep. Pete Stauber’s (R-Minn.) Permitting for Mining Needs Act of 2023 would expedite the mining process and limit the endless legal challenges that tie up essential projects for years. Passage of these bills should rally bipartisan support from those concerned about our clean energy future, supply chain security and the competitiveness of America’s energy and mining sectors. 

Tackling mine-permitting delays is also popular. A recent poll released by the National Mining Association found that more than 6-in-10 Americans support a “streamlined mine permitting process that would encourage more domestic mining for minerals and as a means to decrease our reliance on foreign countries.” Only 15 percent oppose this.

Ultimately, we’re standing in the way of reaching our own energy future. Reducing the self-imposed barriers to domestic mineral production are steps we can and must take to secure the energy future Americans want and deserve.

Christopher Barnard is the vice president of external affairs for the American Conservation Coalition. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisBarnardDL

Tags clean energy Climate change Energy Fossil fuels permitting reform

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