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By J. P. Tangen
Special to Mining News 

Federal permitting delays are a scandal

Small band of civil servants wrapped with aegis of authority are frustrating the development of America's commonwealth


Last updated 9/6/2019 at 5:18am

Coeur Mining Inc.

Coeur Mining's Kensington gold mine in Southeast Alaska. It took nearly two decades of permitting and an arduous court battle settled in the U.S. Supreme Court before Coeur could secure the 90 state, federal and local permits required to put this mine in operation.

It is no secret that much of the western United States was built on the back of natural resources found on federal land or within adjacent federal waters. Likewise, it is no secret that prior to 1964, resource development companies, and many other productive industries, externalized the cost of doing business by discharging often toxic waste into the adjacent environment without regard to the persistent effect of doing so. No one denies that over the past 50 years the environmental conditions have substantially improved, and credit is properly due to the legislators who have authorized and funded the innumerable programs that have effectuated these changes.

In response to these Congressional initiatives, the interested bureaucracy has been transformed, in no small part due to the help of ENGOs (Environmental Non-Governmental Agencies) and their fellow travelers on the federal bench. The unrelenting interpretations handed down by the Ninth Circuit have created a class of precedents that will be hard to overcome, even with the help of conservative executives in the White House for another decade.

Granted, the leadership in some of the key agencies, especially within the Department of the Interior, has made great strides forward. However, it will not be until the hands-on bureaucrats from the "head shed" to the field offices have a change of heart that we will begin to feel the ship of state amend its heading enough for resource development entrepreneurs to thrive. At that point, we will be able to take reasonable advantage of the vast wealth that populates our lands and seas.

Protecting the environment, like nurturing other social values, is a worthy cause within limits. Moderation, not the extreme, should always be our common goal.

Unfortunately, a small number of people who do not appear to appreciate the value of commodities seem to have infiltrated the ranks of the civil service, people who wrap themselves with the aegis of authority while frustrating the development of the commonwealth.

I have long contended that the only time the economic pie is ever expanded is through the development of our resources. The farmer who grows an ear of corn, the fisherman who reaps the harvest of the sea, even the placer miner in the creek all do more to expand our collective wealth than all the paper pushers in the country. Without essential commodities, from tin to timber to corn, Americans, as well as the rest of the world, could not, and would not, enjoy our domestic lifestyle.

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Unfortunately, it appears that the government issues only one size of fly swatters. Both large and small companies are all compelled to jump through the same set of ill-fitting hoops without regard to context or common sense. Notably, in Tuesday's Anchorage Daily News, an op-ed describes the pains and problems the Kensington Mine has endured at the hands of the bureaucracy for nearly four decades. But Kensington is not alone. Innumerable miners, large and small, could readily recite their own frustrations in nearly identical terms.

We need regulators, just as we need traffic cops, but the mission of the regulator should not be to malign the cooperating public. The mission is, or should be, to encourage the traffic to move safely toward its destination.

Ironically, resource development companies are often prepared to expend the necessary time and money to develop American resources despite the lead-fisted treatment that they get at the hands of the regulators, because contemporary companies are simpatico with the prescribed statutory mandates. However, more and more it seems that the catch phrase of those in charge of the stipulations required to dig holes or catch fish, is "I'm just doing my job" instead of "This will help you get going more quickly."

It was not that long ago that the Forest Service was full of foresters and the Department of the Interior was home to a Bureau of Mines. People who knew how to harvest trees well and safely drive an adit had a mission to help the respective industries. Those skills have been displaced by planners.

One hundred twenty years ago Theodore Roosevelt pushed for civil service reform and replaced the political hacks who ran the government with career civil servants. Eighty years ago, the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) was enacted to bring consistency, transparency and essential fairness to government actions. The APA has been deftly used and abused by NGOS, administrative agencies (including the Department of Justice), and the federal courts ever since.

Perhaps now, as we feel the winds of change begin to blow from the East, it is time to rethink our course. Is it too much to ask the stakeholders of America, who seem to like copper-dependent indoor plumbing and nano watches with corrosion-free gold contacts, whether they want their 2.5 million public servants to obstruct the productive sector, or would they prefer to clear the obstacles that are blocking the road to economic success? Federal permitting delays are a scandal not because the bureaucrats are miscreants, but because they have been too often led off course.


Reader Comments(1)

Eidolon writes:

In addition to the infiltration of the regulatory ranks with advocacy bureaucrats, they have created a growing wall of paperwork that is overwhelming the ability of these bureaucrats to process in a timely manner. It used to be that I could submit an application for a USACE Individual Permit for a relatively small-scale placer operation and go through the complete process of public notice and comment and final draft & signature in about four months. Today, this same project and same process will take at least a year and I know of at least one case where the regulators have dragged this out over three years... and this project has yet to even go to public notice! This is poor governance. In fact, it is a failure of governance.


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