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Lawmakers take another swing at reforming 1872 mining law; industry calls it ‘punitive’

 The Chemetall Foot Lithium Operation in Nevada
Doc Searls
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The Chemetall Foot Lithium Operation in Nevada

A pair of Western lawmakers are proposing major reforms to the law governing hardrock mining on federal lands in the latest attempt to update the Mining Law of 1872.

New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich and Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva – both Democrats – introduced the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act in their respective chambers late last week. In a release, Heinrich said, “We cannot go all in on a clean energy future with a 19th century mining policy on the books,” referring to the rush to mine critical minerals like lithium.

He also said royalties need to be collected on hardrock minerals, like gold and copper, as they are for oil and coal.

The Center for Western Priorities supports the measure, and Deputy Director Aaron Weiss said that royalties would be a welcome change.

“I think even more important than that, though, is that this bill would modernize the planning process that goes into mining,” he said.

“Under the Mining Law of 1872, mining is considered the ‘highest and best use’ of public lands, giving mining companies unfettered access to public resources,” reads a fact sheet from Grijalva’s office. “This legislation ends that chaotic practice by establishing a leasing system, leveling the playing field with other uses of public lands – like recreation, grazing, hunting, and energy development, and requiring it to be managed through existing land-use planning processes.”

Conor Bernstein, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, called this and other past proposals from Heinrich and Grijalva “punitive.”

“Completely upending the general mining law – especially, right now - is not only counterproductive to securing our supply chains and building a secure, responsible industrial base, but it will derail virtually everything the Biden administration is trying to accomplish on electric vehicle and renewable energy deployment,” he said in a statement to the Mountain West News Bureau.

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, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM 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.

Hey everyone! I’m Murphy Woodhouse, Boise State Public Radio’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter.