Government regulation has a profound impact on the metals and mining sector. Lengthy permit processes cause significant delays in getting new mining projects up and running. The average time to get the permits needed for a new mine in the United States is seven to 10 years.
Mining companies are required to get approval from several levels of government – local, county, state and federal – before starting a new project. Multiple governmental agencies may be involved at each of these levels. Tribal governments, non-governmental organizations and the general public are often involved in the processes as well.
Some of the federal agencies that must approve mining projects include the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers. Over three dozen federal environmental laws and regulations impact mining. Most new mines are subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires a lengthy environmental impact statement. The Clean Air Act regulates airborne emissions and contaminants. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act protects federal lands from degradation. The Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act govern surface water quality and underground injections into aquifers. In addition, there are federal laws regulating solid waste disposal and potentially toxic substances. The Endangered Species Act requires protection plans for any animals or plants that could be impacted as well.
Some of the most common permits required from state governments concern air and water quality. Local jurisdictions and counties have separate sets of requirements for zoning and land use. In many cases, extensive public input is part of the process.
The environmental impact statements, feasibility studies and other documents that a mining company is required to produce cost millions of dollars and take several years to complete. In 2020 it was reported by the Council on Environmental Quality that the most recent study found that the average time to complete an environmental impact statement was 4.5 years. Government scientists and technical experts review all of the data submitted by the mining company during the permit processes. In 2020, new regulations were proposed that would limit this timeline to 12 months.
One current example of a delayed mining project is the proposed Rosemont Copper mine near Tucson, Arizona. Since 2007, Hudbay Minerals and its predecessor, Augusta Resources, have been seeking approval for a mine that would be the third largest in the U.S., producing 243 million pounds of copper. The company has undergone a multiyear NEPA process, conducted environmental and economic impact studies, and produced a comprehensive water reclamation plan. The Rosemont Copper mine is still awaiting additional approval and permits before it can begin operations. In 2020, Rosemont lost another court case, halting progress yet again.
The typical causes of permit delays are government bureaucracy and litigation. Environmental groups often file suit against proposed new mining operations. When this occurs, the mining company must commit significant resources and time to fight the case in court.