The mining industry is integral to the future of clean energy. But it’s playing dirty.

May 25, 2023

By Kate Groetzinger

The U.S. desperately needs to transition to renewable energy, and this transition will require a huge amount of metals and minerals. Electric vehicle and solar panel manufacturers use minerals and metals like lithium, cobalt, graphite, and copper in their batteries. Demand for these materials is set to skyrocket over the next few decades. For example, lithium demand in 2040 could be anywhere from 13 to 51 times higher than today, depending on which types of batteries are used. Similarly, demand for cobalt and graphite could jump 6 to 30 times by 2040, depending on battery evolution. And those minerals have to come from somewhere. 

The mining industry and its allies in Congress like to say America should promote domestic mining rather than outsource our mineral needs to other countries, because the U.S. has some of the strongest environmental and labor protections in the world. But these same companies and politicians are currently working to weaken existing protections as well as thwart efforts to modernize the law that governs mining on federal land, which is over 150 years old. 

The General Mining Act of 1872 allows anyone to stake a mining claim on any federal public land that is not withdrawn from mining, like a wilderness area or national monument, which is the majority of federal land in the West. Once valuable minerals are discovered at a mining claim, the federal government has little recourse to stop the project, and land managers and the public have few avenues to ensure mines are not causing harm to the environment.

It also leads to the proposal of mines on lands that are not suitable for mining, which in turn leads to conflict and the desecration of special places. For example, a number of companies are currently trying to develop mines on federal lands that are sacred to Native American tribes, like the proposed Resolution Copper Mine at Oak Flat in Arizona. Others are trying to mine upstream of sensitive ecosystems. Twin Metals is seeking to build a copper and nickel mine upstream of the Boundary Waters in Minnesota—the most-visited federally designated wilderness area in America.

Oak Flat, Arizona and a grove of Emory oak trees in the Tonto National Forest; Elias Butler, Wikimedia Commons

The 1872 Mining Law also allows companies to take minerals like copper, lithium, and gold entirely for free from federally-managed public lands. Unlike the oil and gas and coal industries, which both pay royalties on the resources they extract from public lands, the hardrock mining industry gives nothing back to U.S. taxpayers. In the meantime, companies that operate mines in the U.S. report annual profits in the billions. For example, Rio Tinto Group, which operates the Kennecott copper mine in Utah and lobbies the federal government extensively, reported $13.3 billion in profits in 2022.

There are efforts underway both administratively and in Congress to reform this woefully outdated mining law. There’s broad agreement among environmental advocates and their allies about what mining reform should include. Many of these reforms were included in a document published by the White House in 2022. They include establishing strong standards that protect the environment, adopting royalties for hardrock mining, taking “special places” off the table for mining, increasing public engagement and tribal consultation in the permitting process, and more.

For years, Western members of the House and Senate have fought to overhaul the 1872 Mining Law. Senator Martin Heinrich and Representative Raúl Grijalva recently reintroduced a bill that includes many of the reforms mentioned above. The White House has also formed an interagency working group to make recommendations to improve federal mining regulations. The group solicited public comment on mining reform last year and is expected to publish a report based on that feedback imminently.

But the mining industry is fighting these efforts. The National Mining Association spent over $25 million lobbying the federal government over the past decade and over $2.2 million in 2022. This includes lobbying the Internal Revenue Service, the National Economic Council, the Surface Transportation Board, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, as well as individual members of Congress.

The National Mining Association vehemently opposes any efforts to reform or repeal the 1872 Mining Law, according to comments it submitted to the White House interagency working group. The association says the current mining claim process is necessary to prompt mineral exploration in the U.S., and that any sort of restrictions on it will stymie the development of new mines. The association also opposes the establishment of a federal royalty, like those on coal and oil and gas, which could be used to clean up abandoned mines, an environmental burden on which the federal government currently spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

The association’s comments also assert that the mining industry is good at regulating itself, and therefore the U.S. doesn’t need to reform its laws to protect the environment. But history shows this is not true. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that abandoned hardrock mines have contributed to the contamination of 40 percent of the country’s rivers and 50 percent of all lakes. There are at least 22,500 abandoned hardrock mine features—such as pits or tunnels—on federal lands, which can leak toxic chemicals into waterways. The federal government spent $119 million to clean up abandoned mines on federal lands from 2017 to 2021, according to the Government Accountability Office, but the true cost of cleaning up all of these abandoned mines is unknown.

In addition to lobbying the federal government, the mining industry also makes campaign donations to members of Congress. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Joe Manchin received $66,700 and $58,400, respectively, from the mining industry in 2022. The year before, the two senators worked together to remove a provision that would have placed royalties on hardrock mining from the reconciliation bill, also known as the Build Back Better Plan.

Cortez Masto went to the mat again for miners in April 2023, when she introduced legislation to make it easier to dump mine waste on public lands. Her bill would remove the requirement that a mining claim holder proves the existence of valuable minerals in order to validate their claim, making it possible for companies to dump waste on any public lands that are not protected by some sort of conservation status simply by staking a mining claim and paying annual fees. If her bill passes, mining companies could also conduct mining-related activity, such as building and maintaining roads, on any public land without holding any mining claim at all. 

While mining in the U.S. will undoubtedly increase to meet the needs of the renewable energy transition, the mining industry is set on keeping our antiquated mining laws. It’s time for the mining industry to stop fighting the modernization of mining law and get on board with the changes necessary to ensure mining companies don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. We can have clean energy and clean water and federal lands—but not if the mining industry keeps playing dirty. 

(featured image: The Mission Complex open-pit copper mine in Pima Arizona; Joyce Cory, Wikimedia Commons)