Western Democrats to push US mining industry changes

House Democrats from some Western states are preparing to push for changes to a longstanding law that governs mining on U.S.-owned lands

ByMATTHEW BROWN Associated Press
July 26, 2021, 3:51 PM

BILLINGS, Mont. -- House Democrats from some Western states are preparing to push for changes to a longstanding law that governs mining for copper, gold and other hardrock minerals on U.S.-owned lands, including making companies pay royalties on what they extract.

A report published Monday by the Government Accountability Office shows that the U.S. stands out among some other countries such as Australia, Canada and Chile that collect royalties on minerals.

The U.S. does not collect royalties on those minerals in most cases. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva said the mining industry should pay at least as much as oil and gas companies, which typically pay royalties of 12.5% on the value of resources extracted from federal lands.

The Arizona Democrat said he also wants to change how companies acquire land for mining, so that more thorough environmental reviews can be done and some areas shielded from development.

“It's not about stopping mining. It's about mining being done where it should be done,” Grijalva said.

The panel's energy subcommittee, chaired by California Democrat Rep. Alan Lowenthal, is holding a Tuesday oversight hearing on the legacy of mining in western states, where many mining companies went bankrupt decades ago and left behind environmental cleanups that taxpayers are funding.

Environmental laws have changed in recent decades to make it harder for companies to simply walk away from contamination with no consequences.

But efforts to significantly change the government’s mining law — which dates to 1872 — have failed.

There are about 750 hardrock mines on federal lands. That figure doesn’t include more than 70 coal mines whose owners must pay federal royalties.

Under the current law, companies and individuals can gain exclusive rights over public minerals by “staking” a claim, which consists of driving a wooden or metal stake into the ground over a mineral deposit.

An attorney who works for the industry said existing rules allow domestic mining companies to remain competitive with foreign miners, by making it economically viable to explore for U.S. mineral deposits.

Any major changes or a royalty rate that's too high could make it harder for the U.S. to produce so-called critical minerals such as those used in batteries for electric vehicles, said Denver-based attorney James Cress. That would hamper President Joe Biden's ambition to expand renewable energy sources and curb fossil fuels that are contributing to climate change, he said.

“You have to have a law that's workable,” said Cress, who is scheduled to testify during Tuesday's hearing.

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