US mining advocates look north and like what they see

Manchin points to Canadian energy permitting system as he pushes for changes to the U.S. model

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., left, and ranking member John Barrasso, R-Wyo., have pointed to the Canadian energy permitting system as something to emulate.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo))
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., left, and ranking member John Barrasso, R-Wyo., have pointed to the Canadian energy permitting system as something to emulate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo))
Posted September 21, 2022 at 9:18am

When members of Congress speak glowingly of Canada, it is most typically progressive members envious of the nation’s gun laws or single-payer health care system. But many members who have expressed their frustrations with the U.S. mining permitting system have pointed to the Great White North as a model to be emulated.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., has repeatedly pointed to the Canadian system as he pushes for changes to the U.S. system, arguing that our northern neighbors have demonstrated how to run a more efficient system.

“The Canadians are ahead of us on critical metal refining and processing, and we have much to learn from them about how they’re able to responsibly permit these activities and timelines that blow our timetables out of the water,” Manchin said at a May hearing on the U.S.-Canada energy and mineral partnership.

At the same hearing, the committee’s ranking member John Barrasso, R-Wyo., similarly praised the Canadian system, noting that “it takes 10 years, on average, to permit a mine in the United States. It took us less time to get to the moon.”

“In Canada it can take as little as two years for similar permits,” Barrasso added. “We should learn from Canada’s best practices.”

The National Mining Association has also praised the Canadian system, writing in response to an Interior Department request for information on Aug. 30 that “permitting in Australia and Canada, which have similar environmental standards and practices as the U.S., takes between two and three years.” The permitting process in the United States can take seven to 10 years, according to the NMA.

Christopher Smith, chief government affairs officer at Ford Motor Co., similarly cited Canada when he encouraged the federal government to overhaul mining regulations to encourage domestic production of critical minerals needed for the transition to electric vehicles.

Justyna Laurie-Lean, vice president of environment and regulatory affairs for the Mining Association of Canada, said the timeline of less than four years often cited is not a realistic assessment and that even in Canada the permitting process can reach the decade mark.

Hard to compare

Laurie-Lean said it is impossible to compare the two systems one to one, in part because of the differences between subsurface rights in the two nations and because the system can vary widely across the provinces and territories.

But while lawsuits have delayed many notable projects in the U.S., litigation over mining projects is “extremely rare” in Canada, which Laurie-Lean attributes to its less prescriptive laws.

“And that has pluses and minuses. By being less prescriptive, it’s more flexible and it’s harder to litigate,” said Laurie-Lean. But “mushy” rules can be difficult to navigate, she said. “You kind of muddle through, and no two are alike.”

Most Canadian provinces also have in place regulations that require mine operators to consult with Indigenous tribal governments prior to exploring for mineral resources. Danielle Woodring, manager of SAFE’s Center for Critical Minerals Strategy, said this can help ensure they have the “social license to operate.”

On Sept. 16, a coalition of tribes, Indigenous organizations and environmental groups petitioned the administration to adopt regulatory reforms that include “meaningful Tribal consultation and Indigenous resource protections,” among other reforms, to address the impact of these projects.

Recognizing that the United States will need to drastically expand critical mineral mining in the coming years, the Biden administration in February convened representatives from tribes, the mining industry and elsewhere to examine how it can update the General Mining Law of 1872 to “ensure meaningful community consultation and consultation with Tribal nations.”

However, even though these processes are outlined in Canadian law, Laurie-Lean said that if companies operating in Canada did only what was required of them legally they would not have a good relationship. The Mining Association of Canada requires its members to participate in a sustainable mining program, which outlines additional protocols for community and Indigenous relations.

The Canadian permitting process has also drawn criticism from environmental groups.

“The legal regime put in place to oversee the assessment of mining projects greatly favors the interests of companies to the detriment of local populations who have difficulty obtaining independent advice in a timely manner,” Jamie Kneen, Canada program co-lead for the environmental activist group MiningWatch Canada, said in an email.

At the same time, Canadian officials have cited the need to reform their own permitting process in order to get mines in operation sooner, citing similar needs to increase production of those minerals needed for electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines and other clean energy technologies.

At a speech in June at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada conference, Canadian Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said that “rapid development of these sources is urgently required,” adding that lengthy permitting times must be shortened.