Extractive industries keep leaving toxic messes across the West. Will history continue to repeat itself?
The Western United States has a long history of extractive industrial activity. Since the 1800s, westward colonization has both driven and relied upon the extraction of the West’s resources, from furs to timber to gold and other minerals. Extractive activity from this time prompted some of the nation’s first attempts at regulating these industries, including the General Mining Law of 1872 and the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 . This activity also predated what are now considered to be the nation’s bedrock environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act (1963), National Environmental Policy Act (1970), and Clean Water Act (1972). This meant that early mining and drilling occurred without environmental safeguards, and moreover was governed by laws and regulations that were designed to encourage mining and drilling as part of a national goal of colonizing the West and extracting its resources to serve the expanding nation. As a result, mining and drilling from this time caused major damage to Western landscapes and waters, and in many cases left behind pollution that continues to impact people, wildlife, water, and air today.
More than 150 years later, extractive activity continues in the West, with new oil and gas drilling and new hardrock mining continuing to disturb lands and habitats, negatively impacting communities, water, fish and wildlife. Some of the minerals sought by mining companies today are important to the technologies the world needs to transition away from the use of fossil fuels; others are the very fossil fuels that caused, and continue to contribute to, the ever-worsening climate crisis. And while several strong environmental protection laws are now in place, the legal and regulatory frameworks that govern extractive industries have not kept pace with the changes in technology and the scale at which modern drilling and mining projects operate today, leading to challenges with effective regulation. Incredibly, hardrock mining is still governed by the General Mining Law of 1872, which has remained essentially unchanged. Oil and gas drilling is still governed by the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, though that law finally saw some long-overdue reforms with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022—over a century after the original law was first passed.
To be effective, laws and regulations that govern an industry must keep up with advances in technology and the scale at which that industry operates. The General Mining Law and Mineral Leasing Act both allow extractive industries almost unfettered access to federal public lands. They operate slightly differently: the Mineral Leasing Act directs the federal government to lease public lands to oil and gas companies on a quarterly basis, while the General Mining Law allows mining companies to stake mining claims at any time on any public land that has not been explicitly withdrawn by the government. This has effectively resulted in a free-for-all for the past century. Once a company holds a lease or claim, there is very little the government can do to stop drilling or mining from occurring there, even if the location is not suitable for extraction due to its natural characteristics or proximity to a cultural or sacred site. These laws need to be updated to allow the government more discretion when it comes to offering up public lands for extraction in the first place—otherwise, we’ll continue to see projects in places where they have the potential to cause great harm.
While environmental protection laws can discourage and penalize environmental damage, these laws can’t prevent damage. If penalties are not stiff enough, or if enforcement is inconsistent, companies may choose to violate the law and risk having to pay the penalty rather than comply with the law. Even if companies make every effort to comply with the law and protect the environment, accidents will still happen, and it is unrealistic to believe that new mining and drilling will not result in new destruction, spills, and pollution. The mining and oil and gas industries have come a long way in improving safety and decreasing environmental impacts, but modern techniques and technologies are not always safer, especially as the scope and scale of projects has expanded greatly and new technologies like fracking and horizontal drilling have come online. For example, a study by the Idaho Headwaters Economic Study Group cited research which found that failures of mine tailings storage facilities have increased every decade since 1940, despite advances in technology. With inadequate or nonexistent minimum bond levels for oil and gas and for hardrock mining, in many cases cleanup costs are dumped on taxpayers. In a 2008 report , the Government Accountability Office (GAO) calculated that since the beginning of the Superfund program, which is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), $32 billion had been spent on cleanup efforts, or about $1.2 billion per year, on Superfund sites alone. The amount appropriated by Congress is far less than the amount needed to properly clean up all the sites that qualify for the program. A petroleum products tax that used to contribute significant revenue to Superfund was eliminated in 1995 and funding for the program was halved, according to a 2015 GAO report .
Meanwhile, the mining and oil and gas industries continue to extract public resources from public lands, taking advantage of outdated legal and regulatory frameworks to keep their costs as low as possible and avoid cleanup responsibilities in order to maximize private profits. In 2022 alone, as consumers struggled with skyrocketing energy prices, six major oil companies reported a combined $219 billion in profits , with $110 billion of that being returned to investors in the form of dividends and stock buy-backs. The mining and oil and gas industries aren’t using revenue just to return profits to their shareholders; they’re also investing significant amounts in campaign donations to the decision-makers who have the power to block policy change and preserve the legal and regulatory status quo that benefits extractive industry. The companies whose projects are highlighted in this report spent nearly $4 million in federal lobbying in 2022 alone.
Companies also invest in public relations efforts to convince communities that human and environmental health and safety are top priorities. However, as the sites highlighted in this report show, mining and oil and gas companies’ track records are anything but positive when it comes to prioritizing human and environmental health. These sites are just a few examples of places where past damage has current, and often future, impacts—in some cases, more than a century after the extraction began. Taken together, these sites serve as a reminder of the mistakes of the past and demonstrate the need to update laws and policies for the 21st century.