As the nation’s largest silver producer, Idaho-based Hecla Mining Co. is fired up over the possibilities in President Donald Trump’s pitch to create a $1 trillion investment on infrastructure projects.
But company President and CEO Phil Baker says Congress must first make it easier for mining companies to get the necessary permits to start digging up more copper, zinc, silver, iron ore and other minerals needed for the construction boom.
“At the end of the day, you can’t have the infrastructure and everything that goes with that if you don’t have the underlying commodities that go into the bridges and the roads and everything else,” said Baker, the soon-to-be chairman of the National Mining Association.
While some Republicans fear that Trump’s massive spending plan could drive up the national debt, Baker and other supporters say it’s time for fiscal conservatives to think big, as the president advised in his first speech to Congress last week.
“He said, ‘The time for small thinking is over’ – that may have been the most important thing he said in that speech,” said Kevin Kearns, the president of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a group that represents mainly family-owned manufacturing companies. “If you’re going to say, ‘Oh, we have to save our pennies, we can’t invest in our country,’ how does the country get great except by people willing to take risks and invest?”
Baker said the country needed to make the investment to avoid catastrophes, citing the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis that killed 13 people in 2007 as an example of the dangers posed by the aging U.S. infrastructure.
“It’s going to prevent lots of infrastructure from completely breaking down,” Baker said. “But having said that, it cannot be a boondoggle type of investment. It can’t be bridges to nowhere.”
As a presidential candidate last year, Trump often bemoaned the state of the U.S. infrastructure, saying the nation’s airports “are like from a Third World country.” In a role reversal of sorts, he ended up proposing more than three times as much on building projects as the $275 billion suggested by his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.
In his speech last week, Trump said his $1 trillion plan would create “millions of new jobs,” relying on both public and private capital.
“America has spent approximately $6 trillion in the Middle East, all the while our infrastructure at home is crumbling, “ Trump said. “With the $6 trillion, we could have rebuilt our country twice, and maybe even three times, if we had people who had the ability to negotiate.”
Supporters of the infrastructure plan say Trump’s background as a deal-maker who works to finance big projects and a builder who knows his way around construction sites could give him an edge in working with projects.
“He has talked consistently about infrastructure, and builders pay attention to infrastructure,” Kearns said. “That’s all second nature to Trump.”
On Capitol Hill, many Democrats have cited Trump’s infrastructure plan as one of the few areas where they might be willing to work with the new president.
But many Republicans may resist, more worried about the nation’s $20 trillion in debt.
In December, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was among the first to express skepticism, questioning whether the plan was too expensive. But last month, he told reporters that infrastructure spending frequently gains bipartisan support in Congress, recalling how he and former California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer had teamed up two years ago to pass a highway bill.
Shortly after Trump’s election in November, Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador said the conservative House Freedom Caucus, of which he is a member, would provide “the check on the presidency,” partly by insisting that Trump’s $1 trillion plan was fully paid for.
Infrastructure projects are expected to play a key role in Trump’s “manufacturing jobs initiative,” led by a collection of business and union leaders charged with advising the president on how to create more jobs.
Kearns said the group should include more small and midsized manufacturers, but he’s convinced the infrastructure plan would be a wise investment, saying states have a long list of projects “ready to go” and that it would be a mistake to not start fixing bridges and roads.
In Idaho, which has 626 active mines and more than 15,000 people working in them, Trump’s infrastructure plan will not have much effect if Congress doesn’t speed up the process to allow mining companies to move more quickly to extract minerals from the ground, Baker said.
Mining officials say it can take seven to 10 years, on average, to get the necessary approvals to open a mine in the United States, compared with only two to three years in Canada and Australia.
Baker said that Hecla, headquartered in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, wanted to open two copper mines in nearby Montana. But he said the projects had been delayed for 15 years, with the company still waiting to get the permits.
The plans for the new mines have run into heavy resistance from environmental groups who worry about the effect on groundwater supplies.
Katherine O’Brien, a Montana attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice, said the Hecla projects were not the appropriate “poster child” to make the case for delayed projects. She said opponents wanted to block Hecla because the company’s proposed Rock Creek Mine was on the border of a federal wilderness area, which would threaten habitat for grizzly bears and bull trout.
Meanwhile, Baker said the mines would be good job producers, with each employing 400 to 500 workers for at least 40 years.
“Most projects don’t end up not getting done – they just end up getting done a long time after they were first proposed,” Baker said.