In recent years, a number of states and the federal government have been working to increase the amount of renewable energy in America’s power grid. Unfortunately, progress has been slow. For example, when it comes to harnessing offshore wind power, only a single project off Rhode Island has been installed to date in U.S. coastal waters.
Why the delays? In large part the answer is a lot of unnecessary governmental red tape. Although U.S. states have sanctioned nearly 17,000 megawatts of offshore wind power – something that states and environmentalists both want – the bureaucratic obstacles involved have proven prohibitive. To locate and install these types of projects can require approvals from as many as 20 different federal, state, and local agencies—and the process can take years.
This same brand of inefficiency has also created major hurdles for the development of new roads, bridges, pipelines, electric transmission lines, and other critical infrastructure. However, these hurdles may start to fall, now that the Trump administration has proposed improvements to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
For years, NEPA regulations have slowed the development of crucial infrastructure projects throughout the nation. For example, NEPA reviews often take up to seven years to approve a single federal highway project. In revising NEPA, the administration hopes to establish more reasonable timeframes for the completion of environmental impact statements. Such streamlining, along with improved information sharing, could help the nation launch new energy and infrastructure efforts. Improving NEPA could also help to revitalize the nation’s essential hardrock mineral industry.
A more fair and efficient regulatory approval process for America’s mining industry matters greatly for both the nation’s energy independence and vital infrastructure assets. Wind and solar installations—along with new bridges and roadways—all require vast amounts of the minerals and metals that come from U.S. mines. Minerals like neodymium, molybdenum, iron, copper, lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, and others are essential to the success of emerging renewable energy technologies like wind turbines, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and electric vehicles. And these new technologies will require even more minerals and metals than the systems they replace.
Unfortunately, it now takes seven years, and often longer, to secure the necessary permits for a new mine in the United States. In contrast, Canada and Australia maintain comparably stringent environmental standards but still process mining permits in just two to three years.
The United States possesses an estimated $6.2 trillion worth of mineral reserves. But due to our broken permitting process, America continues to source urgently needed materials for energy, transportation, and other infrastructure projects from nations with environmental standards much less strict than our own. It’s well past time to improve our environmental review requirements, both to reinvigorate domestic mining and to modernize our failing infrastructure. But that can’t happen until Washington streamlines antiquated bureaucracies and starts slashing red tape.
Thomas J. Madison Jr. is an infrastructure consultant who has previously served as Administrator of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.