It’s hard to believe, but the 1872 Mining Law still governs how minerals are extracted from public lands 150 years after it was passed. With approximately $1 billion in hardrock minerals extracted every year from public lands, not a single cent is collected in royalties, costing Americans more than $160 million annually. This does not include the estimated $20 – $54 billion in cleanup costs, most of which will be paid by taxpayers. Not surprisingly, the 1872 Mining Law has no environmental, reclamation or financial assurance requirements. Here in New Mexico we have 15,000 abandoned mine sites that need to be cleaned up as a result. Mining is the largest toxic polluter in the country, and EPA estimates that hardrock mines have contaminated 40% of Western watersheds.
Without mining reform, the public will continue to lose billions of dollars in royalty payments for minerals extracted from public lands, bear the cost of cleanup of abandoned mines, and our environment, public health, and special and sacred places will not be adequately protected due to the lack of modern regulation of mining on federal public lands.
The Biden Administration and some members of Congress, however, are trying to fix this huge problem by stopping the giveaway of minerals belonging to the American people and bringing mining laws and regulations into the modern era. President Biden’s executive order passed in his administration’s first 100 days recognizes that mining laws need to be reformed to “ensure domestic mineral supply meets environmental standards with meaningful community and tribal consultation.”
New Mexico’s Senator Martin Heinrich introduced in 2022 the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act that would “amend the 1872 General Mining Law to eliminate patenting of federal lands, impose a federal minerals royalty, establish a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund for the cleanup of abandoned mines, and require a review of certain lands within three years to determine if they should be available for future mining.” A companion bill was introduced in the House by Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona. Neither bill moved in this past Congress, so they will need to be reintroduced in the 118th Congress.
In 2021, a coalition of 9 Tribes and 31 conservation groups petitioned the Biden Administration to initiate a rulemaking to strengthen and modernize the Bureau of Land Management’s mining-related rules. In response, the Department of Interior held listening sessions and solicited public input on mining reform this past summer. Comprehensive comments from Tribes and conservation organizations were submitted to the Biden Administration. The New Mexico Mining Act Network submitted additional comments on needed reforms to how mining is regulated on federal public lands.
How can we strengthen mining laws and policies to protect people, the environment and water supplies? Here are NMMAN priorities:
We need to promulgate federal standards that require socially and environmentally responsible mining on public lands. The Biden Administration should look for guidance from the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), the internationally-recognized set of standards and benchmarks for responsible mining from exploration through mineral processing. Improve public participation through community and Tribal consultation. Since over half of the world’s energy transition minerals are located on Indigenous lands, the federal government should require Free Prior and Informed Consent for any mining activity on public lands that will impact Indigenous peoples’ rights/interests. A royalty system should be established to fund cleanup and reclamation of abandoned mine lands. We need to put systems in place for the efficient use, reuse and recycling of minerals to reduce demand for the development of new mines. Withdraw ecologically fragile areas and sacred places located on public lands from mining. Create a hardrock reclamation program and require that environmental liabilities are fully covered by secure financial assurance mechanisms.