Will streamline front of U.S. renewable energy supply chain Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – January 22, 2020
Wind turbines, solar panels and the batteries that store the electricity these renewable energy sources generate are creating new demands for an array of minerals and metals, many of which are not mined in the United States.
Recognizing that mines lie at the front end of America's expanding renewable energy supply chains, federal officials have voted to make mining projects eligible for Fast-41, a program established in 2015 to improve the timeliness, predictability, and transparency of federal environmental review and authorization process for domestic infrastructure projects.
Short for Title 41 of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, Fast-41 established the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC), a federal entity meant to provide a one-stop-shop capable of coordinating permits across different federal agencies, thereby streamlining and shortening the overall process for large infrastructure projects that are eligible for the program.
Now certain mining projects that supply the materials needed for the energy, communication and transportation infrastructure in the U.S. may be eligible for Fast-41.
This could help reduce the seven to 10 years its takes the average large mining project in the U.S. to get through the permitting process, which is good news for domestic solar and wind manufacturers that often have to rely on imports for the metals they need.
"As the front end of our supply chain, American mining is key to successfully repairing our nation's infrastructure so including mining projects among those covered by Fast-41 is an important first step in addressing permitting delays that have plagued the mining industry for years," said National Mining Association President and CEO Rich Nolan.
Critical energy metals
The U.S. depends on imports for more than half of its needs for 48 minerals and metals, which includes 18 for which it is 100 percent reliant on foreign sources, according the U.S. Geological Survey.
Many of the minerals and metals not mined in the U.S. are critical to building America's renewable energy and electrical vehicles sectors.
The USGS list of mined materials that the U.S. is fully import reliant include gallium and indium, which are used in solar panels; niobium and rare earth elements (REE) needed for wind turbines; and graphite and manganese, which are used in lithium-ion batteries that provide green energy the ability to deliver power to the electrical grid as needed.
This reliance on imports could be exacerbated by the global skyrocketing demand for many of these minerals and metals critical to green energy.
FPISC Executive Director Alex Hergott said the American Wind Energy and Solar Energy associations have expressed concerns about reliable supplies of the minerals and metals needed by their member companies, which is one of the reasons why the permitting council voted in favor of making mining eligible under Fast-41.
"So, the fact that moly (molybdenum) for wind or the other 25 elements that are needed for solar panels, that we would not add the feedstock for renewable energy under conventional energy as an infrastructure item is somewhat asinine to me," he said at the December AEMA meeting.
At the time of Hergott's presentation in Nevada, the more than a dozen federal agencies that are members of FPISC were considering the potential of including mining as eligible for Fast-41.
In addition to the mineral supply concerns expressed by the solar and wind energy associations, the permitting council was being prompted by states with undeveloped mine projects that host some of the minerals these renewable energy sectors need.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy nominated two proposed critical mineral mines in Alaska – Graphite Creek, a potentially enormous source of graphite being advanced by Graphite One Inc., and Bokan Mountain, a rare earth element deposit in the Southeast part of the state – as high-priority infrastructure projects. In addition, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott nominated Round Top, a rare earth project in his state, to be included on the high-priority infrastructure list.
More information on Round Top can be read at Texas REE project considered for Fast 41 in the current edition of Metal Tech News.
These nominations were made under Executive Order 13766, a directive by Trump to strengthen the U.S. economy by expediting the permitting of infrastructure projects.
"Designating the Graphite Creek project as a high-priority infrastructure project will send a strong signal that the U.S. intends to end the days of our 100 percent import-dependency for this increasingly critical mineral," Dunleavy penned in his nomination letter.
The graphite and rare earth nomination letters also sent a strong message that mining projects are the foundation of America's infrastructure sector and should be eligible for Fast-41.
With the Jan. 15 vote by FPISC members, mining projects now are.
Weakness to strength
This permitting council is an independent entity that consists of members from more than a dozen federal agencies and sits outside and above the other agencies as a coordinating element.
"It doesn't have any jurisdiction over any organic statute but what we do is bring all those federal elements together to adjudicate disputes and cut the BS," FPISC Executive Director Alex Hergott said during a December presentation at the American Exploration & Mining Association's (AEMA) 2019 Annual Meeting in Nevada.
To be eligible for FSIPC, a project is expected to require more than US$200 million in investment and subject to an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"Within 60 days of being on this council we send a team to fly down to the project. We get all the state, tribal, county and city zoning individuals – all the federal elements that in many cases have only known each other over email for 20 years – we sit them around a table," Herrgott said.
These various stakeholders decide upon a reliable, realistic agreed upon permitting timeline with milestones. Once set, this timeline cannot be altered unless there is a major event that would prevent the project from moving forward.
The council's main tool for ensuring the project stays on this timeline and the agencies are held accountable is the Federal Infrastructure Permitting Dashboard, which tracks the progress of FPSIC-eligible projects.
This dashboard allows government agencies, project developers, and interested members of the public to track the federal government's environmental review and authorization processes for these large or complex infrastructure projects.
This accomplishes much of the permit streamlining Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has advocated for with mine permit reform legislation she has introduced to Congress over the past decade.
"I welcome this announcement, which will ensure that mining projects benefit from the permitting transparency and accountability that many other major projects already receive," Murkowski said. "Minerals are essential to infrastructure, yet our country is deeply dependent on foreign sources for everything from rare earths to cobalt. Reasonable steps like this one will help us change that and ultimately turn our mineral security from a weakness to a strength."