For the first time in years, a bill to fix the broken mine permitting system has a chance of becoming law. Better yet, it is being shepherded by Alaska's own U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Murkowski and Alaskans have long known that the federal government and its duplicative permitting system have kept Alaska's vast mineral resources under the ground. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) blocked the Pebble mine, and Bureau of Land Management officials and miners in Chicken recently met to address the government's attempts to permanently withdraw nearly 700,000 acres from mining. In addition, the combination of an inefficient permitting process, changes in gold prices and lawsuits led to 17 years of delays before the Kensington mine was up and running.
Sen. Murkowski's American Mineral Security Act of 2015 would go a long way to easing these delays and roadblocks. The Senate Energy Committee is due to vote on the bill later this summer, and if passed by the full Senate, the bill would require geological surveying of critical mineral resources, reduce federal permitting delays and ultimately help Alaskans develop the state's world-class mineral resources.
Based on estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey, if Alaska were a country, it would be ranked in the top 10 for coal, copper, lead, gold, zinc and silver.
Many of these commodities are essential to the development of defense, energy and medical technologies -- not to mention the success of Alaska's economy -- but they remain untapped with the mine permitting process in its current form. As it stands today, it takes a mine in the United States about seven to 10 years to get the necessary permits to operate. In countries with similar governments and environmental standards, like Canada and Australia, it takes an average of two to three years.
We saw the effects of the inefficient permitting process firsthand with the Kensington Gold Mine north of Juneau. The nearly two-decade-long permitting process at Kensington increased the cost of the mine by nearly 50 percent. Today, five years into production, Kensington is the second-largest private employer in Southeast Alaska, and it produced more than 100,000 ounces of gold in 2014.
The lengthy permitting process and federal government interference are stifling opportunities for more economic growth in our state. In 2014 alone, mining paid $144 million to Alaska Native corporations and generated $119 million in state revenues through royalties, rents, fees and taxes. And despite access to only six major mines, the industry provides 4,400 direct jobs in the state, according to the Alaska Miners Association.
While the Kensington story fortunately has a happy ending, we need policies in place that can get us there faster for other mining projects.
Murkowski's bill essentially gives the government a set timeline in which it has to complete reviews. With this increase in efficiency, we could not only maintain and expand job growth but also boost the competitiveness of our defense, energy, electronics, medical and manufacturing industries. Alaska's minerals are essential to developing these new technologies but they are locked underground just as a rising world population is demanding more of them.
The regional impact of mining in Alaska is critical. Oftentimes a mine is the largest property-tax payer in an area, and the jobs provided are some of the highest-paying jobs in the state, averaging more than $100,000 a year. It is crucial that Congress pass Sen. Murkowski's bill now to ensure economic opportunity and jobs in Alaska and the nation as a whole.
Rebecca Logan is general manager of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, a nonprofit trade association of more than 500 businesses, organizations and individuals that provide products and services to the oil, gas and mining industries.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.