If you can say anything about the permitting process for mining and other large development projects in the United States and Alaska, you can say this: It is a playground for fools dedicated to blocking investment and development at the economy's expense.
"Permitting delays are the most significant risk to mining projects in the United States," says investment firm Behre Dolbear Group in its 2012 annual global assessment of mineral investment. The firm says federal rules that even mining-friendly states - Alaska is not one, yet - must enforce cause a "seven- to 10-year waiting period before mine development can begin."
Who can afford that? Of the 25 nations surveyed for investment potential by Behre Dolbear, the United States was dead last, tied with that development powerhouse, Papua New Guinea. Australia, Tanzania and Mexico topped the list. Because of the potential for delays and litigation in the United States, investors too often -- and predictably -- take their checkbooks elsewhere.
Last year, "The Economist" ran a cover story by Philip Howard titled "Over-regulated America" that concluded smarter regulation would "mitigate a real danger - that regulation may crush the life out of America's economy."
President Bill Clinton in "Newsweek" earlier said it can take three or more years to permit a major economic development project in this country. He urged faster regulatory approval and state waivers of environmental rules to get projects permitted quicker.
Delays and the endless, grinding process to get a project under way drives investment dollars to places such as Russia, where environmental concerns are a lark. The Associated Press in 2011 reported environmentalists estimated at least 1 percent of Russia's annual oil production, or 5 million tons, spills annually - or the "equivalent to one Deepwater Horizon-scale leak about every two months." There are vast lakes of oil there springing from pipeline geysers.
Alaska has its own piece of the national permitting snarl. As recently as fiscal 2011, the Department of Natural Resource's Division of Mining, Land and Water had a backlog of 2,658 permit applications and authorizations. Some had languished for years. By the end of last calender year that number was trimmed to 1,643.
Alaska finally is working toward a more streamlined, efficient and predictable permit process that can avoid delays and endless trips to court afforded development opponents by the current system. From an economic standpoint, fixing the process is money in the bank
Last year, Gov. Sean Parnell asked for and signed into law House Bill 361, which allows the Division of Mining, Land and Water - with more than $9 million from a largely supportive Legislature - to simplify rules and reduce time needed to process permits, allowing the agency to further cut the backlog.
The Parnell administration has introduced more measures this year as part of its continuing drive to sort out Alaska's permitting morass. One, Senate Bill 26, among other things, allows the Natural Resources commissioner to issue general permits, instead of project-specific approvals, to speed the process if the activity is unlikely to cause "significant and irreparable harm" to state land or resources.
Administrative appeals would be limited to people "substantially and adversely affected" by a decision, who "meaningfully participated" in the public comment process and not those who simply disagree, the AP reported.
Perhaps most controversial is a provision blocking individuals or groups from applying for water reservations to maintain or protect certain water levels. While much of the permitting legislation has won bipartisan support, some see this provision as a shield for development of the Chuitna coal and Pebble prospects -- though anti-development forces apparently intended to use reservations against those projects.
"Of the 35 pending water reservation applicants from individuals or groups, most - 22 - are in the vicinity of or could impact Pebble, including 11 from Trout Unlimited," the AP reported. Three could affect the coal project. Applications date back to 1992 though most are from about 2007 on.
Yet another measure, Senate Bill 27, would allow Alaska to evaluate and take steps to assume primacy from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for dredge and fill permits under provisions of the federal Clean Water Act. Importantly, that would give Alaska more development control and focus, while maintaining the integrity of the process.
Cleaning up Alaska's permitting process is at the top of the state's to-do list. If Alaska is ever to be a player on the world investment stage, it must be.
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanetcom.