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Prospecting delays

Rob Sabo

Lengthy delays in the permitting process for mining exploration could potentially curtail new exploration in the state by small mining companies and force major mining firms to spend exploration budgets elsewhere, mining executives say.

The disconnect between mineral exploration teams and the regulatory agencies regarding permitting timelines was the focus of a panel discussion at a meeting last week of the Nevada Mineral Exploration Coalition, a group that represents small and individual mineral explorers throughout the state.

Delays in processing permits happen for a variety of reasons, including staff shortages in state and federal agencies and the industry’s unfamiliarity with the requirements of the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

The delays often hurt small operators’ ability to attract capital for their exploration programs, members of the exploration coalition said.

For example, with the Forest Service, any plan that impacts the land road construction, drill pads and holes requires a full National Environmental Policy Act analysis. Those analyses include full cultural, biological and wildlife surveys, regardless if the proposed exploration is on 100 or five acres. The survey processes are public and are choked with different requirements.

“That all takes time,” said geologist Jim Rigby of the U.S. Forest Service.

The state office of the BLM, however, does not require full NEPA analysis on proposed exploration projects of less than five acres. And that mishmash of requirements often proves confusing, said Tom Clark, director of government affairs for the law firm Holland and Hart.

“There is no clear roadmap to for small operators to follow to get their projects approved,” he noted.

Amy Lueders, state director for the Nevada Bureau of Land Management, acknowledged the inherent tension between operators and the permitting agencies.

The BLM has had noticeable improvements in streamlining the review process for federal register notices, Lueders said. Still, the permitting process can seem like Groundhog Day for certain operators as they shuffle paperwork from one agency to the next in an seemingly endless loop of submissions and revisions.

“We have made a lot of progress in Nevada in terms of our timelines, but I think that it will continue to take all of us working together to identify what conflicts are and what information is needed to get a partnership early on in the process,” Lueders said.

Debbie Struhsacker, an independent environmental and government relations consultant, said the average time to get a plan of operations approved is about 18 months. There are currently hundreds of active operational, reclamation and environmental permits in the state on more than 164,000 acres of public and private land.

It takes about 180 days for a new exploration permit to be processed by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, said Bruce Holmgren, the agency’s bureau chief. However, members of the Nevada Minerals Exploration Coalition pointed to some projects with much lengthier timelines for approval as much as 22 months in one instance.

Lueders said exploration companies can expedite the permitting process by identifying potential resource issues and conflicts to eliminate the back-and-forth between private enterprise and state agencies.

Clark of Holland and Hart said it’s also crucial to form closer relationships with executives in the regulatory bodies to help move the paperwork along faster.

“Get to know your regulators as best you possibly can,” he said. “If you know the rules, and you understand them, you have a better shot at meeting timelines and getting the financing that’s necessary and building a track record as someone who can accomplish why you need to do in the timelines set forth.”

Forming closer relationships with the officials tasked with reviewing and approving documents also leads to predictability and consistency when submitting plans of operations, Lueders added.

Lastly, added Rigby, exploration companies need to focus on submitting solid plans of operation with no holes or significant changes, which can greatly reduce the time it takes for that plan to receive approval.

Eliminating delays is crucial for smaller exploration companies, executives said, because they need to advance their drilling programs and show investors measurable results to continue drawing investment capital for their operations. Lengthy delays, which eventually could give the perception that Nevada is a difficult place to conduct mining operations, could send those investment dollars elsewhere, they said.