The United States needs the Bureau of Mines

December 18, 2023

Since 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced investments of an estimated $41 million in various projects that will support the exploration, processing and production of critical minerals and materials in the United States.

In August of 2023, the DOE announced that it would invest $30 million to help lower the costs of the onshore production of rare earths and other critical minerals and materials from domestic coal-based resources. In 2022, the DOE released a request of information on the design, construction and operation of a new facility to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of a full-scale rare earth element and critical minerals extraction and separation refinery using unconventional resources.

In February 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) awarded a contract worth $35 million to MP Materials Corp. to design and build a facility to process heavy rare earth elements at the company’s Mountain Pass Mine in California. And in Sept. 2023, the DOD approved a $90 million grant to Albemarle to help support the expansion of domestic mining and the production of lithium for the United States’ battery supply chain.

Clearly, Washington, D.C. has gotten the message that the United States needs to increase domestic production of critical minerals. These developments are good for the nation’s economy and national security as well as for the U.S. mining industry. But wouldn’t it make more sense to have one federal agency with oversight of the domestic mining industry?

“There is so much money being distributed to explore for and produce critical minerals in an environmentally responsible manner but there is not one agency that is responsible for the oversight of mining in the United States,” George Luxbacher told me. Luxbacher, 2008 SME President, has worked in academia, industry, and for the federal government during his long career.

In 1910, such as agency was established when the U.S. Bureau of Mines (USBM) was created to address a wave of catastrophic mine disasters. The Bureau conducted research to enhance safety, health and the environmental impact of mining and mineral processing. As time went on, the Bureau’s mission expanded, and it became the foundation for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the NIOSH Mining Program, as well as the Office of Surface Mining.

The USBM employed approximately 1,000 people who were focused on the regulation and federal management of the nation’s mining industry. In 1995, the U.S. Congress voted to close the Bureau of Mines and nearly $100 million or 66 percent of the Bureau’s programs ceased and its essential functions were distributed out to the various agencies including the DOE, DOD, U.S. Geological Survey, NIOSH, Bureau of Land Management, etc…

Now, more than 100 years after the USBM was formed, the United States mining industry is facing the challenge of meeting the demand for critical minerals that if not addressed properly could have catastrophic consequences for the nation’s economy and the global environment.
“There is a quagmire of agencies responsible for different parts of the mining process,” Luxbacher said. “A re-established Bureau of Mines could have the narrow focus of helping the nation meet the critical mineral needs and requirements in an environmentally sustainable manner. If we still had the Bureau, just think how much further ahead we would be.”

In Europe, a recent agreement on the proposed Critical Raw Materials Act called for a quick and simplified permit procedure for strategic extracting projects, to be dealt with by a single national contact point.

Even the Interagency Working Group that produced the report “Recommendations to Improve Mining on Public Lands” seems to recognize that the nation would be better served by the USBM than by the current alphabet soup of agency’s each focusing on one aspect of the complex mine permitting process and often slowing the entire process with duplicative efforts.

“In order to cultivate an environment conducive to rebuilding the U.S. mining sector, the federal government needs to promote a stream of consistent and widely available geologic data, technology, and support infrastructure, as well as dedicated funding for mining science, metallurgy, and mining education,” the IWG wrote on page 90 of its 169-page report. “In recognition of the need for additional data, technology, research, and consistency, several commenters recommended that the U.S. Bureau of Mines (USBM), or a similar single agency, be reestablished.”

To be clear, this column is not meant to be an endorsement of the full IWG report, but on this point, we can agree that it is time to bring back the USBM. 
 

 

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