These Democrats help companies remove gold from public lands for free – Mother Jones

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Senator Joe Manchin speaks with Senator Catherine Cortez Masto during a June meeting of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.Tom Williams / AP

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This story was originally posted by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In the midst of recent skirmishes By revising the reconciliation bill, known as the Build Back Better Plan, lawmakers once again missed an opportunity to reform the general mining law of 1872.

Under this outdated law, hard rock miners can extract profitable minerals such as gold and silver from public lands without paying federal royalties. Although it has been challenged several times over the past decades, mostly by Democrats, the law has not been updated significantly in the nearly 150 years since its passage.

In August, a House committee, chaired by Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, attempted to modernize the legislation by adding language to the reconciliation bill to establish federal royalties of between 4% and 8% on these mines. It would have been the most significant update the mining law has received in the nearly 15 decades since President Ulysses S. Grant signed it.

However, hardrock royalty reform never even reached a vote thanks to Democrats Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) And Joe Manchin (DW.V.) making personal fortunes in coal mining. Manchin initially showed his support for the royalty provisions in October when he spoke to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, saying he could “never imagine that we weren’t receiving royalties on as many things as we produce in this country “. But he then turned the tide and allegedly promised Cortez Masto that he would block all mining royalties, thus killing the reform before it even reached the full Senate. On November 4, royalty reform was formally withdrawn from both House and Senate bills.

The actions of these senators virtually guarantee that the American public will continue to miss out on billions of dollars in revenue that could have supported the priorities of the Build Back Better plan, including paid family leave and significant climate investments. The bill would also have held companies accountable for cleaning up abandoned mines that are eating away at the West. Instead, mining companies will continue to mine public lands for their own financial gain.

The general mining law of 1872 was adopted following the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century as part of a campaign to encourage white colonization of the West. In the past, prospectors sometimes staked land claims without the permission of the federal government, let alone that of Indigenous peoples who were dispossessed of the lands in question.

In order to regulate the flourishing industry, Congress passed some early mining laws starting in 1866. The General Mining Act of 1872 took their place. He established the tracking system, which allowed individual miners and companies to stake claims of mineral discoveries in the public domain, on land that had never been privately owned.

Besides gold and silver, a long list of royalty-free minerals fall under this “tracking system” regulation, including lithium and copper, which are becoming increasingly valuable due to their use in technology. green energy such as solar panels and electric vehicles. The industry has extracted some $ 300 billion of these minerals from public lands since 1872, according to Earthworks. And while mining companies have come a long way from the days of digging with pickaxes and now using some of the biggest machines in the world, their return to the American public remains as paltry as ever.

This is why a large base of critics, from conservation organizations to lawmakers, believe it is high time to reform the 1872 law. Currently, the government collects hard rock mining fees for things like mining. registration and annual maintenance, which generated around $ 71 million in revenue in fiscal 2019, but that’s a small amount compared to the money that would come from royalties.

For example, in September, the House Natural Resources Committee proposed a new royalty that would have raised $ 2 billion over 10 years. And that’s probably a conservative estimate: The federal government has no data on the amount or value of hard rock minerals mined from public lands, which make up more than 80% of mineral mines on federal lands, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In contrast, mines operated under the more heavily regulated rental system, for resources like coal and oil shale, account for only 17% of mining on federal lands, but generate much more revenue through to royalties. In fiscal 2018 alone, they grossed $ 550 million. Coal is by far the main generator of income under the mining lease system.

The proposed reforms would also have added reclamation fees for abandoned mines and increased annual maintenance fees for claims from $ 165 to $ 200 per claim, adding another billion in combined revenue over the next decade.

This money could, among other things, provide funding to address a myriad of environmental and health threats in the western United States caused by past mining. Prior to the 1970s, for example, companies abandoned mines after completion, leaving behind tens of thousands of often toxic scars on the ground that could cost more than $ 50 billion to repair.

Reform attempts the general mining law has been in force for years, but a well-funded network of lobbyists and special interest groups has continued to thwart any success. Mining interests regularly spend over $ 16 million a year on lobbying; this year they have already spent over $ 13 million.

The National Mining Association spent the most in 2021, reaching $ 1.5 million, according to data from OpenSecrets, a nonprofit campaign finance and lobbying organization. Several companies that would be directly affected by mining law reform have lobbied against it, including Newmont Corp., a gold mining company that has invested more than $ 800,000 to fight efforts to change the law.

This helps explain why an ongoing effort to reform the law – the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act – has stalled in recent years. Democrats have introduced the bill to Congress at least six times since 2007. The most recent version of the bill, in 2019, failed amid a major industry lobbying campaign. Among those fighting it were mining giant BHP Group and the National Mining Association, which targeted the bill in a $ 1.2 million lobbying campaign.

And mining industry lobbyists have power beyond their financial influence: they are also intimately linked to government. According to OpenSecrets, nearly 65% ​​of industry lobbyists previously worked for the government, many of whom were in mining-related positions.

Lobbying campaigns help to understand why Manchin, who said in October that it was time to bring “obsolete law into the 21st century” was ready to suddenly change course. According to OpenSecrets, he has received more campaign donations from the mining industry than anyone in Congress, raising nearly $ 50,000 from the industry in the current fundraising cycle. Cortez Masto’s campaign has also benefited: The National Mining Association business group and Barrick Gold Corp., one of Nevada’s largest mining companies, recently donated to his campaign.

Nevada’s economy depends on gold mining; nearly $ 8.2 billion worth of metal was mined in the state in 2020. Cortez Masto’s predecessor, former Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, was against challenging the 1872 mining law, calling it “ill-conceived reform efforts that would have harmed rural Nevada.” in a 2009 editorial. It looks like Cortez Masto is picking up where Reid left off, protecting the industry in an effort to keep voters rural.

Neither Manchin nor Cortez Masto responded to requests for comment.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Government Oversight Project, an independent, non-partisan watchdog that investigates and exposes waste, corruption and abuse of power.

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