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Hal Quinn, U.S. mining’s advocate in Washington and beyond

Hal P. Quinn, the president and CEO of the National Mining Association, believes the people employed in U.S. mining is the strongest asset the industry possesses.

In a recent interview with Mineweb, Quinn expressed confidence the new Republican-controlled Senate may accord the U.S. mining industry the access, the airing of concerns and the vetting of legislation that the industry has come to rely on in the U.S. House.

Convincing both houses of Congress that streamlining of mining permitting on the federal level is vital to the future of U.S. manufacturing and related industries is one of Quinn’s foremost goals over the next two years as a new U.S. President is chosen in 2016.

Appointed as chief of the National Mining Association in 2008, Attorney Quinn has been working in and around the mining industry for more than 25 years ever since he joined the Mining and Reclamation Council of America as legal counsel in the 1980s, which was subsequently merged into the National Coal Association in 1987, and then merged with the American Mining Congress in 1995, becoming the National Mining Association.

When asked what he likes most about mining, Quinn declared, “I really enjoy the people. I think that’s the strongest asset our industry has; they’re all very innovative and dedicated. When you’re working for an industry that is so essential to everybody’s standard of living and providing for the needs of society, you really have to feel good about the people you’re representing to have a policy environment that is going to help them be successful.

“Because you know that, when it all comes down it, if the mining industry is not successful, then this country is not going to succeed. Whether we’re talking about energy, manufacturing, infrastructure, technology, national defense, that’s what we’re all about. We’re part of that. We’re the front end of the supply chain on all that.”

In many cases relationships already existed with the aforementioned sectors, Quinn acknowledged. “What we’ve been striving to do over the past five or six years is to strengthen them and tie them closer together. There are a lot of issues that all these sectors of the economy, these industries, have in common.

“But I think what we’ve done over the last four, five years is drill down and show them that we have specific needs, too, and that it’s in their interest in helping us be successful in formulating the right policies to support us remaining competitive and moving forward so we can feed their sectors with the minerals, metals and materials they need so they can be competitive,” he said. “Our Minerals Make Life Campaign, that’s really what that’s all about is that, one, particularly with the policymakers and influencers, is drawing that connection between mining and key sectors of our economy tighter, showing them that connection. And also then reaching out to those sectors as third-party validators of what we’re advocating and what we’re saying, how critical we are to their success.”

When asked if a GOP-controlled Congress will really help mining, Quinn responded, “What we stand for and what we’re advocating, in our view, is not really a partisan issue. We view our interests as perfectly aligned with the public interest, so we don’t think it should depend on partisanship. At the same time, we have to realize there may be different viewpoints about how we reach those objectives and whether some of the policies we’re advocating may not be uniformly viewed as necessary for us to be successful.

“I think a GOP-controlled Congress now aligns both houses under the same party who will set an agenda about what are the priorities, public policy-wise, for the country,” Quinn observed. “We know that in the House of Representatives over the past several years the public policies that we’ve been advocating have been getting a full, thorough and consistent treatment. With a Republican controlled Senate, our hope is that they will be given similar treatment over there in terms of aired, vetted, and acted upon.”

Permitting and Best Practices
When asked by Mineweb if Congress really can do much to improve a permitting process controlled by the Obama Administration, Quinn responded, “They can impact that because they can set some expectations and accountability into the process, particularly at the federal level.

“We have some very good, effective and efficient innovative systems at the state level. Where we see quite a bit of delay is when we’re laying the federal level over top of that and there’s quite a bit of overlap and duplication,” he noted.

“Over the last two Congresses we have legislation passed, the Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act, that really embodies best practices for an efficient and thorough permitting review and really sets out expectations in terms of timelines, allows the project proponents to agree with the lead federal agency on timeframes for reaching key decision points throughout the process,” Quinn added.

“We think those are best practices and they’re out there already, but they’re not required under the law but they are recognized. So the legislation we’ve advanced for the last two years, Congress has said ‘let’s put those in place’ and that’s the template you have to follow. Let’s stop having a system that allows permit applications and projects to remain in limbo because nobody is willing to make a decision one way or the other,” he stressed.

“And let’s cut back on the duplication and let the environmental analyses and assessments that are going on at the state level be utilized on the federal level and we don’t have to do a whole new analysis in most cases; maybe in some there’s going to be some gaps that have to be filled,” Quinn acknowledged. “But let’s focus on those rather than have the federal level try to duplicate what the state’s already been doing with respect to the environmental performance of that particular operation.”

“Best practices continue to evolve. I think what companies bring to the table when they put in an application to get the authorizations they need is they reflect those best practices in their application. So there are places where you might not need additional regulations, but you evolve your practices to be better positioned to meet the expectations of the law; that’s where the two shall meet.

“It’s not a matter of self-regulation as it is accommodating the evolving nature of best practices and bringing those forward as the industry continues to improve on its environmental performance. The expectation of what is expected of us is heightened, but at the same time we expect that the regulators will improve their process to recognize that and move forward without delay on these things because we’re bringing forward better practices, better technology and better risk assessment,” Quinn stressed.

When asked if U.S. mining companies will consider adopting the Minerals Council of Australia Water Accounting Framework for the Minerals Industry, Quinn counselled, “I think a lot of the companies are evaluating that as they look at the projects that they’re putting forward is what are going to be the needs of that project, whether it’s water consumption or other resource implications. Somehow that information will be digested for purposes of putting forward your project application about how you’re going to meet expectations on minimizing or avoiding unnecessary impacts on particular resources.”

Possibility of More EPA, Other Agency Power Grabs
In the wake of successful efforts by the EPA to retract federal Clean Water Act permits for coal companies, as well as the agency’s desire to pre-empt the filing of any federal mining application permits by the Pebble Partnership in Bristol Bay, Alaska, Quinn suggested, “This (Obama) Administration has been very aggressive in stretching what they believe is the breadth and extent of the existing law.

“We’ve seen that in the permitting process with respect to revoking permits that have been issued by another agency, and then in anticipation of new projects coming on line, suggesting that they can actually zone areas out from a federal level before anybody can even come forward with a full-blown mine plan and application and say ‘Here’s my project and here’s how I propose to address the issues of concern under the law.’

“The Arch Coal permit revocation a few years back is one example of retroactive action. The Pebble situation is clearly an example of a prospective carving out of ‘no-go’ zones well before the information’s available to evaluate properly how a very attractive project that’s needed would have impacts and whether they could be avoided or mitigated or addressed in a reasonable fashion,” he remarked.

“There’s another dimension to this, too, which is how often the agencies change their interpretations of existing rules or laws, which poses another challenge for a capital-intensive industry,” Quinn commented. “When you’re putting a lot of capital in the ground, you have to sustain that they may come up with a new interpretation of the law; and you’re saying, ‘I can’t retrofit this operation to do that.’

“And there has to be an understanding that going forward it might be something that’s reasonable to consider, but is some cases that’s not going to be technically or economically practicable at all.”

The priorities for mining in dealing with Congress and the Obama Administration identified by Quinn include a focus on getting improvements to the permitting system. “If we’re not allowed to find it, produce it and deliver it, we got a big problem here in the country,” he said.

“If it’s taken seven to 10 years to get permits and our peers are doing it in one to three years, we’re lagging behind and we have the highest standards in place right now,” Quinn asserted. “Canada and Australia, who are constantly trying to improve their systems, they really fully understand what the value is of the resource industries to their entire supply chains and the economies of their countries.

“We certainly need to be thinking about that here in terms of supply chains to the key sectors for our economy because of the manufacturers and technology folks are all looking to have more secure and more simplified supply chains. If we become increasingly reliant on sources that are further away and subject to, not only the unknown, but the unknown unknowns that keeps them up at night.

“When a mining permit takes 10 years in this country to get, it’s not a matter of just hurting the mining industry, that’s hurting manufacturing, that’s hurting energy, that’s hurting technology. It’s not good for anybody,” Quinn stressed.

Strategizing Against Mining Opponents
Over the years, opponents of mining have become increasingly sophisticated in their attacks on mining; “that’s something we’re always thinking about and anticipate,” Quinn acknowledged. “You can see it at various levels where they’ll go after the key pieces of the upstream aspects of our business on our exploration and mining side and then downstream to the beneficiation and refining side, and even, at times, looking at initiatives that are going to affect the markets for the products.”

“The requirements to address all these things effectively require more resources and it’s a little bit difficult at times because we got to figure out what our core competencies are and then what we need to execute on those core competencies,” he explained. “So there’s some things that you’re just not going to be able to spend as much time on because you can try to do everything and do it mediocre, or you try to do the most important things and do them well and do them successfully and that’s always a day-to-day challenge.”

Quinn’s Goals for NMA
When asked to define his goals for NMA, Quinn responded, “The goals are to continue to craft a very positive policy environment so the industry can not only remain competitive, but be successful—that helps the rest of the country succeed.

“We constantly look (at) each year and throughout the year (we ask ourselves) what are the major priorities in terms of policy issues that are going to impede our meeting that objective of allowing the industry to perform to its full potential and then what are enabling policies that will improve the situation,” he explained. “There are ones that are going to be half the battle because they’re going to hurt us.

“It could be the Clean Water Act permitting system and the changes or policies. It could be the Clean Air Act. It could be the RCRA, how they deal with solid waste,” he noted.

“The other side is: What are the things out there that have been neglected that we need to bring up front and say, ‘This is something that our country has not paid enough attention to, and that, in my mind, would be the permitting system’.

“We have a world-class resource base, but we’re being shackled by a worst-in-class permitting system,” Quinn declared. “There’s no reason for that, particularly as we see our peers continually improve their process. Our message is nobody should ever confuse the length of the process with the quality of the review or the thoroughness of the review. They’re not necessarily related at all and we need to bring some accountability into the system.

“There are policies that we want to advance that I call ‘enabling in nature’, to improve the situation and there are other areas we’re in, particularly in this administration’s aggressive regulatory agenda, where we’re trying to hold off or derail or shape what we call ‘disabling policies’; those that will harm our competitive position and our ability to do business, and at the same time do not really offer any material improvement in public benefits, whether it’s environment or otherwise,” he stressed.

“One of our consistent values is safety. …CORESafety is a management system,” Quinn stressed. “CORESafety is based on risk assessment: anticipating where the risks will be and marshalling the resources to address them adequately, so it’s all about preventing and we continue to push that. Our membership has embraced that.

“It’s completely available to the entire industry. Our goal is 0:50:5, zero fatalities and a 50% reduction in injuries within five years,” said Quinn. “We’re seeing improvement. It’s not solely because of CORESafety, but we think CORESafety, when the leadership of our industry brought that forward, it provided a very valuable tool and pathway for the industry as a whole on the journey to zero harm.”

“We developed a curriculum for safety that we believe is more contemporary; it’s not just about ‘let’s study the mine safety law’. It’s more about ‘here’s the tools you use to sustain continuous improvement in safety’,” he noted. “Our view is ‘how well you want to run your business starts with how well you protect your people.’”

David Scott is the head writer at TRI PR. He better part of his college life as a journalist for the college magazine. He still writes and he loves it.