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The US ranks 41st in the world in terms of the ease of gaining federal permits to proceed with construction or infrastructure projects, according to the 2014 World Development Indicators‘ Ease of Doing Business Index.

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Philip K. Howard of Common Good, recently discussed with us how permitting, not funding, is the biggest obstacle to renewing and replacing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

A Chief Permitting Officer

Senators Rob Portman (R. – Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D. – Mo.) have introduced a bill that requires the first chief permitting officer for federal agencies. The bill would impact projects that cost more than $25 million and receive federal dollars, which includes most interstate roads and bridges. However, it does not give the new CPO the right to force individual agencies involved with projects to make decisions or move forward on projects in a timely manner.

“It’s a multi-headed federal bureaucracy that we have,” Howard said. “The problem with their bill is the CPO doesn’t have any authority. He can’t lean on one unreasonable agency if it’s holding up a project. There needs to be a dialectic here. If any one of 19 different agencies involved (in the Bayonne Bridge project in New Jersey) decides it’s going to dig in its heels in, there is no alternative but to give in to what they want. That feeds the paralysis. There needs to be a presumptive authority somewhere. There needs to be someone who can cut through that. If that authority is too high-handed that won’t work, either. You want an incentive for everyone to be reasonable and agree to make decisions within a reasonable timeline.”

In countries that rate higher on the Ease of Doing Business Index, interstate road or bridge projects there is a permitting officer or a department designated as the one stop for permitting and review. You can’t ignore it. There is an internal mechanism where agencies inside the permitting process can, essentially, complain if their concerns are being ignored by the overseeing agency and its CPO.

“If the question is the adequacy of environmental review, the decision maker to draw the line on that would be an environmental official,” Howard said. “If it’s a powerline running through several states, it should be the agency responsible for the adequacy of the power grid.”

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India’s dependence on thermal coke from abroad is beginning to raise concern in international circles, though some exporting countries are happy to have the business.

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India sits on mountains of thermal coke, yet mainly due to bureaucracy, it has to depend on imports.

The day, it seems, is not far off when India will topple China as the World’s number one importer, if analysts were to be believed.

Coal, Coal, Everywhere But Nary a Chunk to Mine

The situation is, indeed, grim. It has made Indian Power Minister Piyush Goyal remark at a public platform that it (importing thermal coke) is shameful. The minister told an audience after inaugurating a power project recently near Nagpur in central India that the government plans to almost double the government coal production by 2019-20. He added that importing coking coal, used for making steel, may be a necessity but thermal coal is at a surplus in the country, yet India is still being forced to import it. A Ministry of Coal report estimated coal reserves at about 300 billion metric tons, of which 125 billion mt were in the “proved” category.

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The nation’s reliance on imported minerals has more than doubled in the past 30 years and manufacturing executives say the lack of domestic exploration has affected their businesses.

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In a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report published by Minerals Make Life, 78% of high-tech industry CEOs said that their businesses face minerals and metals scarcity. 73% of automotive CEOs and 67% of renewable energy CEOs agreed that their businesses face minerals and materials scarcity.

Though the US is home to more than $6.2 trillion worth of key mineral resources US-based businesses imported more than $42 billion worth of minerals last year to help meet manufacturing needs.

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Construction employment declined by 1,000 in March but is still up by 282,000 compared to March 2014, as the sector’s unemployment rate fell to 9.5%, according to an analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America. Association officials noted that declining demand for residential and public sector projects offset gains in other areas to contribute to the overall month job losses.

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“After 14 months of steady job gains, construction employment suffered in March,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the AGC. “Except for multifamily construction, home building remains weak and government officials just can’t seem to find a way to pay for needed repairs to a host of aging facilities.”

Housing/Commercial Construction Shortfall

Construction employment totaled 6.34 million in March, compared to 6.345 million in February and 6.06 million in March 2014, the AGC reported of its analysis of US Census Bureau data. Residential building and specialty trade contractors lost 2,800 jobs (-0.1%) since February but added 136,300 jobs (6%) over 12 months. Results were split in the homes sector, with residential building contractors adding 3,700 jobs for the month while residential specialty trade contractors lost 6,500 jobs compared to February.

Nonresidential contractors—building, specialty trade, and heavy and civil engineering construction firms—hired a net of 1,100 workers for the month and 145,000 (3.8%) since March 2014. As with the residential sector, the nonresidential employment sector varied by segment. The nonresidential and specialty trade contractors and nonresidential building contractors added a combined 5,000 jobs for the month, but heavy and civil engineering contractors—who typically perform public sector projects such as highway construction—lost 3,900 jobs since February.

Non-Existent Investment

The employment figures are consistent with February federal spending data released earlier this month that showed declining investments in residential and public sector construction projects offsetting growing demand for private, nonresidential construction. Simonson noted that the industry’s recovery would continue to suffer if public sector investments continue to decline and the residential market remains weak.

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Spring is a time of renewal and nothing could use a good rebound more than our metal markets. Free Download: Cut Your Overseas Metal Shipping Costs While most of the metals are still down for the year, some of them actually rallied this month and showed positive growth, some for the first time in 2015. […]

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A three-nation trip by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – to France, Germany and Canada – begins April 14, but metal analysts here are focusing on the Canadian leg. They expect India and Canada to sign a commercial deal for the supply of Canadian uranium for India’s nuclear power plants during Modi’s three-day visit.

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In 2010, Canada and India signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, followed by another agreement in 2012. Since then, Canada’s main uranium supplier Cameco has been in talks with Indian officials about supplying uranium to India. Diplomatic circles of both nations expect the deal to be sealed when Modi visits Canada next week.

Canadian Uranium

Modi dropped several hints about the deal in his Facebook posts. He said India was looking into resuming its civil nuclear energy cooperation with Canada, especially for sourcing uranium fuel for nuclear power plants. Canada, incidentally, was the first country to have completed all the formalities for civil nuclear cooperation with India in 2008. Canada sits on vast uranium reserves, and is one of the largest uranium producers in the world.

On this front, Canada, too, has been making overtures in the last few years. Late last year, Brad Wall, Premier of the province of Saskatchewan in Canada, let it be known that he was discussing sale of uranium to India along with proposals for partnering with India in clean coal technologies.

In fact, going by media reports here, Modi’s focus on this three-nation foreign tour will be garnering investments in energy, security, space and military sectors, under his favorite project’s mantle – Make in India.

One report also suggests that problems related to nuclear liability will be discussed by Modi and his French counterpart, President Francois Hollande. French company Areva is involved in the 9,900-megawatt Jaitapur power plant project in India.

In recent times, India has been bullish on acquiring fuel for its reactors, and Modi’s European and Canadian trip will only serve as one more opportunity for that.

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While funding in Washington is bogged down by partisan resistance to new taxes or cutting spending in the complicated process of trying to replenish the Federal government’s Highway Trust Fund, funding is only one part of the problem of why our crumbling infrastructure isn’t being replaced. Much of it is simply held up in red tape.

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Philip K. Howard, Chairman of Common Good, an organization that seeks to streamline government bureaucracy, recently wrote in The Daily Beast that even with funding, “no government body has the ability to approve the work or to build it in a commercially reasonable way. Red tape is so dense that even obvious fix-it projects require years of review. Raising the roadway of the New Jersey-to-New York Bayonne Bridge, for example, was a project with almost no environmental impact, because it used the bridge’s existing foundations and right of way. But it still required 47 permits from 19 government agencies, and a 5,000-page environmental assessment.”

Paralysis by Analysis

Only 3.6% of the 2009 $800 billion stimulus was actually spent on transportation infrastructure. Bureaucratic delay in such projects gave politicians little incentive to fund projects—the link between new taxes and new jobs was simply too attenuated.

“The way it works in other countries is there’s a department that’s appointed as the one stop shop (for review and permitting) whose job it is to coordinate with, in the case of the Bayonne Bridge, those other 19 departments,” Howard said in an interview. “The permitting agency can’t ignore them, let the project sit or do whatever they want. Having different points of pressure is useful and having a decision maker is essential.”

This would mean that a federal agency would typically preempt state and local entities on interstate projects.
Since so many state and federal agencies are involved in the minutiae of civil construction, these projects are also leaving a lot of waste on the table.

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Today, in MetalCrawler: a federal regulator urged replacement of rail tank cars, but just wants new tank cars and doesn’t want to replace them with pipelines. Alcoa, Inc., insists it’s now a “multi-materials” company and not just an aluminum producer, and construction associations have petitioned the federal government for guaranteed costs for change orders on federal projects.

NTSB Wants New Rail Cars

Federal officials Monday called for the urgent replacement of railroad tank cars to make them more fire-resistant in the event of an incident like last month’s fiery derailment near Galena, Ill., of a train hauling crude oil.

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The current rail car fleet should be aggressively replaced or retrofitted with better protection against heat from fires and by increasing the capacity of pressure relief devices, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended.

“We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in a statement. “Crude oil rail traffic is increasing exponentially. … The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements, otherwise, we continue to put our communities at risk.”

The New Alcoa

Alcoa is at the forefront of two trends changing the metals industry, the Wall Street Journal reports, both of which will be on display Wednesday, when the company is expected to report earnings of 25 cents a share, up from nine cents a year earlier. In January, it reported its best full year results since 2008.

The first trend: an eastward shift in raw production, driven by economic growth in Asia and changes in relative costs.

The second: a turn by metals companies toward making parts for fast-growing markets like aerospace and automotive, which are more profitable than making raw metal.

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With Iran and the US coming to terms over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, India finds itself in an enviable position where all the players in the game have aligned on the same side – one big “Us,” Israeli protests not withstanding.

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Moving forward, India will be more than willing to sign on the dotted line on several deals in the pipeline with Iran, especially in the steel sector. In March, Iran’s Deputy Industry Minister, Mehdi Karbasian, was quoted by Azer News saying Iran was ready to accept Indian investment in the steel sector, and “planned to start activity in the country.”

Along with India, a large number of other foreign mining companies including some from Kazakhstan had already visited Iran in the past year, looking for similar investment opportunities.

New SAIL Facility

At the start of 2015, India’s state-run Steel Authority of India (SAIL) had announced a proposal for a multimillion dollar, nearly 2 million-metric-ton integrated steel plant in Iran.

SAIL has already asked the Iranians to provide 500 hectares of land near the country’s Bandar Abbas port and another 500 hectares of contiguous land for future expansions.

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Today in MetalCrawler, a producer merger deal that was thought to be dead may have found new life, the same as an alumum lawsuit that was thought to be over.

Glencore-Rio Tinto Deal Back On?

The biggest mining deal ever attempted could boil down to a simple ratio: the price of copper versus the price of iron ore.

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Glencore PLC, the Swiss mining giant with massive copper holdings, last year proposed a roughly $150 billion merger with Rio Tinto Group PLC, among the world’s biggest producers of iron ore. Glencore’s announcement that Rio rebuffed the bid on Oct. 7 set off a six-month moratorium under UK law from another approach.

That cooling-off period ends on Tuesday, potentially opening the door to more talks. The two miners had never publicly disclosed potential terms, and Rio executives haven’t encouraged new talks.

But two factors have swung in Glencore’s favor that could encourage a deal creating the world’s largest mining company and give investors exposure to every major commodity.

The Wall Street Journal wrote that the continuing decline in iron ore prices and the surprising resurgence in copper prices could put the deal back on the table.

Aluminum Price-Fixing Lawsuit Not Over Yet

A federal judge on Thursday refused to dismiss antitrust litigation accusing a variety of Wall Street banks and commodity merchants of conspiring to drive up aluminum prices by reducing supply.

US District Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan said aluminum purchasers may pursue claims against several defendants, including affiliates of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Glencore and aluminum warehouse operators. Forrest head earlier dismissed several non-US defendants because she lacked jurisdiction.

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