March 08, 2019

Sen. Manchin Supports Hardrock Mining Reform | Bloomberg

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s top Democrat said he was opposed to a 147-year old mining law that a coalition of environmentalists are now trying to overhaul.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s remarks, made at a March 7 roundtable meeting of the committee, could encourage other Democrats or centrist Republicans to vote for a reform bill expected from Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M). Manchin didn’t co-sponsor a version of Udall’s reform bill in the last Congress.

Under the General Mining Law of 1872, companies don’t have to pay royalties on hardrock minerals they extract on public lands. The hardrock category includes essentially every type of mineral except coal.

“It makes no sense to me at all,” Manchin said.

Environmentalists are hoping that message can resonate even among lawmakers from non-mining states, because the law lets foreign companies mine for gold, silver, copper, uranium, and other metals without paying royalties to the U.S.

Manchin’s comments capture a sense of unfairness common among coal-state lawmakers: Coal miners must pay royalties to the federal government on the coal they dig up, and are also subject to heavy environmental regulations that don’t apply to hardrock miners.

The West Virginia Democrat further expressed bewilderment at a provision of the law that allows public lands to be sold for as little as $2.50 an acre, a price that hasn’t changed since 1872.

Gold Miner Says Paying Plenty

In response, Patrick Malone, head of legal and regulatory affairs at Barrick Gold Corp., said at the roundtable that the company paid $542 million last year in taxes just from its Nevada operations.

“So it’s true we’re not paying a royalty, but it’s captured in a very extensive tax program,” Malone said.

He also said gold mining is capital-intensive, requiring billion-dollar upfront investments. Unlike coal, gold must also be heavily refined, costing even more money, Malone said.

But Manchin did not seem persuaded.

“A gram of gold is a hell of a lot more expensive than a gram of coal,” he said. “So everything’s proportional.”

A coalition of environmental groups including Earthworks, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Western Organization of Resource Councils, National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, and Center for American Progress has recently begun approaching members of Congress to support an overhaul of the law.

Similar efforts have been tried for decades, but have consistently failed amid resistance from the mining industry.

The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Environment is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.

Complaints About Feds

Also during the roundtable meeting, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said the relationship between states and the federal government on public lands needs improvement.

As an example, Lee said state regulators must ask the U.S. Forest Service for permission to abate pests that are infecting local trees, only to be denied. If the trees then die, creating fuel for forest fires, the regulators must ask the Forest Service for permission to harvest the timber, and could be denied again, Lee said.

“Then, sooner or later, those trees catch fire,” Lee said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the panel’s chair, echoed those sentiments. She noted that the federal government still hasn’t capped boreholes it drilled in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve in searching for oil.

Coaxing federal regulators to cap the holes “is like pulling teeth, only worse,” Murkowski said.


By:  Steven Lee