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My Turn: Pebble problems reveal larger issue facing mineral projects

Posted: October 23, 2013 - 12:00am

Anglo American’s recent departure from the Pebble Mine project has generated contentious debate throughout the state and in our nation’s capital about the future of domestic mining. This withdrawal of capital from a promising venture is just one among many in recent years, as the United States’ uncertain regulatory structure around minerals mining deters major investment. It’s a hard pill to swallow considering that our nation’s $6.2 trillion worth of mineral resources could be developed responsibly, generate economic growth, support new high-paying jobs and strengthen domestic industries.

The proof is in the pudding — just look at the more than 9,500 Alaskan jobs the mining industry supported last year alone. These jobs are among the highest paying in the state with an estimated average annual salary of $100,000 — more than twice the state average. Mining not only creates jobs at mine sites, but also supports local businesses, generating employment at grocery and supply stores, auto dealerships and hotels.

Beyond Alaska, mining continues to bring economic opportunity to communities across the country despite trying economic conditions. Mining supported nearly 2.2 million American jobs and contributed $232 billion to the nation’s GDP in 2011 alone. The very minerals mined here in Alaska and throughout the United States are essential elements to nearly every domestic manufacturing chain, from the automotive sector to defense and renewable energy. Minerals supply our industries with the raw materials they need to continue churning out innovative American products.

Yet, as demand for minerals is predicted to rise over the next 20 years, obtaining supplies is increasingly becoming a zero-sum game. Despite vast reserves of key mineral resources here in the United States, domestic industries rely on foreign imports to meet more than half of their needs, and remain 100 percent import-dependent for 18 different minerals.

Our growing import reliance is due in large part to a lag in domestic mineral production on account of the United States’ duplicative, outdated permitting process for new mining projects. Companies, staring down what can be a seven to 10 year delay to secure necessary permits to operate in the United States, look elsewhere to invest. The ongoing drama with Pebble is just one example of this regulatory boondoggle.

Thankfully, policymakers in the U.S. House of Representatives — from both sides of the aisle — have realized the serious implications of dwindling investment in U.S. mining and are working together to right this regulatory wrong. In September, the House passed the bipartisan National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013 (H.R. 761), to bring predictability and transparency to the opaque, inefficient permitting process. By ensuring more efficient permitting for new mining projects, H.R. 761 could enable states like Alaska to attract new investments and jobs that our nation has forfeited for years.

What’s more, H.R. 761 maintains the strict environmental regulations already in place to ensure Alaska’s environment remains pristine. The bill does not alter environmental safeguards, but rather allows federal and state governments to coordinate, making the process more efficient, but no less thorough. This legislation is critical to Alaska’s — and our nation’s — economic competitiveness. With H.R. 761 having passed the House, now is the time for the Senate to advance similar legislation.

If our nation is able to further tap its mineral resources, we will undoubtedly ensure stronger domestic industries and a brighter economic future for generations to come. Let’s hope the Senate recognizes the importance of such reform and elects to work together to support the economic opportunities mining brings.

• Rebecca Logan is general manager of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, a group that advocates for the responsible development of natural resources for the benefit of all Alaskans.

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