House Passes Mining Reform, White House Threatens Veto

By Brodie Farquhar, 11-01-07 (From The House voted 244-166 to reform a 135-year-old mining law Thursday afternoon, and force the hardrock mining industry to pay royalties on minerals extracted from public lands – just like the coal, oil and gas industries.

The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act (HR 2262) requires miners on federal lands to pay royalties of 8 percent of gross income on new mining operations, four percent on existing operations.

Republicans like Rep. Bill Sali of Idaho, predicted that the bill will destroy the American mining industry, exporting jobs and the industry to overseas countries that have little or no environmental regulations and have child labor in the mines.

The White House has threatened a veto, saying that placement of royalties on existing mining operations invites lawsuits. The House vote is not big enough to override the threatened veto.

“The bill approved today by the House falls far short of the reforms we have worked hard to achieve to provide a fair return to the taxpayer for the use of federal lands and greater regulatory certainty,” said National Mining Association (NMA) President and CEO Kraig R. Naasz. “The enormous costs that would be imposed on the hardrock mining industry by the bill and the failure to provide mining companies with greater security when operating on federal lands will only increase the nation’s growing reliance on imported minerals vital to our economy and our national defense.”

In contrast, conservationists were ecstatic over the win.

“Today the U.S. Congress takes an important step towards updating one of the last remaining laws that gives away our public lands and minerals,“ said Stephen D’Esposito, president of EARTHWORKS, which has long advocated reform of the 1872 mining law. “Although the law was passed before women could vote and long before the advent of national environmental laws, it still governs mining for precious minerals – such as gold, copper and uranium – on public lands.”

Before the final vote Thursday afternoon, the House voted on a number of procedural bills and motions, including seven amendments – five from Republican members. From the first Thursday vote to the last, the Democratic majority lost only one vote, but attracted the support of 24 Republicans – most from the East or MidWest.

Out in New West country, the voting was strictly by party line, although Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyoming, didn’t vote all week, due to the ill health of her husband.

Of the Democratic congressmen who spoke in favor of the bill, Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colorado, expressed a few reservations, but overall endorsed the idea of reform. His district includes Golden, home of the Colorado School of Mines and several hardrock mining companies.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the powerful House Natural Resources Committee, has been trying to reform the 1872 mining law for the past 20 years. With half a million abandoned mines scattered across the country and an estimated $30-70 billion price tag on environmental remediation, Rahall compared the old mining law to grand scale bank robbery. Indeed, Rahall said, the greatest bank robberies of history are “chump change” compared to the rip-off that the U.S. taxpayer has experienced over the past 135 years.

During floor debate, Rahall noted that David H. Bieter, the mayor of Boise, Idaho had written Rahall a letter, complaining that the city was “powerless” to protect the city’s source of drinking water from a Canadian mining company’s heap-leach cyanide operation.

“Over the years, the Mining Law of 1872 has helped develop the West and allowed needed minerals to be extracted from the Earth - but we have long passed the time when this 19th century law can be depended upon to serve the country’s 21st century mineral needs,” Rahall said. “At stake here are the health, welfare, and environmental integrity of our people and our precious federal lands, the public interest of all Americans, and the future of the hardrock mining industry in this country.”

Current law permits multi-national conglomerates to stake mining claims on federal lands in the 11 western states and Alaska and to produce valuable hardrock minerals such as gold, silver, and copper without paying any royalty to the public. Further, the law contains no mining and reclamation standards, and provides for claimed lands to be sold for between $2.50 and $5.00 an acre.

Laren Pagel, a lobbyist for EARTHWORKS, said even the mining industry admits what some degree of reform is warranted, and there is bipartisan support for reform in the Senate.

“We just don’t know what that would look like,” she said.

What is clear is that Senate action on reforming the nation’s basic mining law will start in the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee. Chaired by Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and with Sen. Pete Dominici as the ranking member, the committee is heavily stocked with Western senators – eight Democratic and four Republican members, from the Western states of New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, South and North Dakota, Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho.

“It’ll probably be next year before we see any action in the Senate,” said Pagel.

Final mining reform bill voting in the House Montana * Dennis Rehberg-R: No Idaho * Bill Sali–R: No * Mike Simpson – R: No Wyoming * Barbara Cubin – R: Absent Colorado * Diana DeGrette – D: Yes * Mark Udall – D: Yes * John Salazar – D: Yes * Marilyn Musgrave – R: No * Doug Lamborn – R: No * Tom Tancredo – R: No * Ed Perlmutter – D: Yes Oregon * David Wu – D: Yes * Greg Walden – R: No * Earl Blumenau – D: Yes * Peter DeFazio – D: Yes * Darlene Hooley – D: No Utah * Rob Bishop – R: No * Jim Matheson – D: Yes * Chris Cannon – R: No New Mexico * Heather Wilson – R: No * Stevan Pearce – R: No * Tom Udall – D: Yes Nevada * Shelli Berkley – D: Yes * Dean Heller – R: No * Jon Porter – R: No