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The Mountain West News Bureau is a collaboration between Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, KUNR in Nevada, Nevada Public Radio, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana and Wyoming Public Media, with support from affiliate stations across the region.

Interior Dept. group calls for mining reforms amid push to reduce critical minerals outsourcing

A white and red dragline excavator that looks like a crane drags some falling soil over a large mound of black sediment.
Rick Bowmer
/
AP
A dragline excavator moves the rock or soil layer that needs to be removed in order to access the coal at Trapper Mining on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Craig, Colo. A new report with recommendations for the U.S. mining industry focuses, in part, on modernizing the Mining Law of 1872, which has regulated mining on public lands for more than 150 years.

A group led by the Interior Department has released recommendations to reform mining practices on public lands.

The more than 60 proposals are based on roundtable discussions last year by leaders in the mining industry, tribes, environmental advocates and government officials. The Interagency Working Group on Mining Laws, Regulations and Permitting also received nearly 27,000 public comments that informed the report.

The recommendations come as the United States shifts toward mining more critical minerals, including lithium, cobalt and nickel, that were traditionally outsourced for production in other countries like Chile and Russia. Those minerals are needed to power major technologies, like smartphones and electric vehicles. The move stems from President Biden's Executive Order 14017 that focused on strengthening and developing America's supply chains in order to "ensure our economic prosperity and national security."

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“The reasons for the president’s and Congress' focus on mining reform are very clear, reliable and responsible,” said Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the Interior Department and co-chair of the working group. “(The report) identified key changes that will help mine permitting become more efficient and improve our ability to produce our own domestic resources while better engaging and protecting communities impacted by potential mines, especially tribes and rural communities.”

One focus area in the report regards modernizing the Mining Law of 1872, which has regulated mining on public lands for more than 150 years. Recommended updates to the law would address inefficiency and unpredictability in permitting – an issue that has caused mining projects to take roughly 16 years on average from ideation to commercialization, according to the report.

“I've often told our team that I'm not saying we need to rewrite America's mining laws every century, but maybe every other century,” Beaudreau said. “(We need to) take a look and see if they're really meeting our contemporary needs if we're to seize the opportunities for domestic sourcing of critical minerals.”

The group also wants to change the overall policy approach to mining in the U.S., as Beaudreau said there is no current law that incentivizes companies to develop mining plans. Additionally, the report found many mining companies submit vague or incomplete proposals, which can block progress and create delays.

“It is common for speculators to stake claims and sit on them for decades with no intention of ever producing any minerals, including the critical minerals that we've been talking about,” he said.

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Another key recommendation would give tribes more of a voice in mining development, as mining has historically displaced many Native American communities. Mining companies often plan projects before releasing any information to tribal communities or letting them weigh in, which can spark opposition.

Even though some companies hold listening sessions for tribal communities that may be affected by a proposed mine, “not enough do, and it’s not required,” Beaudreau said.

He added that it should be a “standard practice” to include tribes in mining’s economic opportunities and letting them reap some of the benefits.

“That means bringing tribes into the conversation upfront and in earnest as mining exploration and development proceed,” he said.

Other recommendations would boost federal support for mining research and technology and address abandoned mining sites that are sources of pollution.

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Some environmental groups welcomed the proposals as good first steps toward a “much-needed reform,” according to the Sierra Club’s statement from Athan Manuel. But others, like Earthworks, would like to see the government take action on the report's recommendations as soon as possible.

“While the administration’s support for modernizing the mining law is appreciated and a necessary end goal, short term regulatory changes are critical for protecting the communities and places facing immediate impacts from hardrock mining,” stated Earthworks in their press release. “The recommendations made in the report should serve as a base to immediately begin the process of updating mining rules at the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.”

The timeline for enacting the recommendations, however, is unclear. But Beaudreau said the department understands the urgency and that the proposals require cooperation from many groups.

“We're in it for the long haul with the energy transition,” he said. “We need to accelerate our process. We need to establish reliable supply chains. But this is something that we need to do now in order to sustain us for decades and decades to come.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.