Surface mining (Photo: Geography Britain and Ireland, Wikimedia Commons)
Extraction of minerals on US public lands is based on a 150-year-old law that does not require payment of royalties or adequate protection of the environment and local people. Journalist Jim Robbins speaks with host Bobby Bascomb about concerns about a proposed lithium mine in Nevada and efforts to reform outdated mining law.
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BASCOMB: From PRX and Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios to University
from Massachusetts, Boston, this is a still edition of Living on Earth. I am Bobby Bascomb.
To accelerate electric vehicles and the transformation of renewable energy, we need minerals like lithium that make battery storage possible. But in the United States, the legal extraction of these minerals on public lands relies on a 150-year-old law, the General Mining Law of 1872, which does not require miners to pay royalties to the government. It was put in place to stimulate settlement from the West when the country was young, but today the archaic law offers very limited protection for the environment or local people. For more, we now turn to Jim Robbins, a veteran journalist based in Helena, Montana, who has written about mining law for Inside Climate News. Jim, welcome to Living on Earth.
ROBBINS: Thanks for inviting me.
BASCOMB: So last year a new open pit lithium mine was approved and Thacker Pass Nevada, give us an idea, please, of the importance of lithium and some of the other minerals discovered in the West in terms of transitioning to a green economy.
ROBBINS: Lithium is probably the most important mineral for decarbonizing the world. It is at the heart of electric batteries for electric vehicles. It’s lightweight, it holds a charge very well, and you can charge it again and again and again. Its importance therefore cannot be overestimated. And there is global competition to be the companies that mine and sell lithium. Its price has really skyrocketed in recent years and will likely go even higher.
BASCOMB: It obviously creates a lot of demand if the price goes up.
ROBBINS: Yeah, I mean, the demand is out of this world. And there is a global rush for new resources. This mine, at Thacker Pass, Nevada, near the Oregon border, is the largest in the United States. So it’s very valuable. It’s worth it right now at these prices that exceed 4 billion. And it may be worth much more as the mine continues.
BASCOMB: Now, these mining companies that extract these minerals are operating under a law put in place by Ulysses Grant in 1872. Give us an idea of the law, please. You know, how does this apply to these mining companies and what rights and restrictions are in place?
ROBBINS: Ulysses Grant signed this law a few months after signing the National Parks Act that created Yellowstone National Park. So he had a varied approach to the West in just a few months. The law was created to stimulate the development of the West to bring people out mainly for gold and silver deposits. It was basically a gift. So people would make the trip west and explore. If you go out into the landscape and search for stakes and locate a claim that allows you to explore for minerals on those 20 acres exclusively. And if you find something, you can patent it. And if it’s valid, you have to prove it, you have to show that it’s worth developing. If you prove it’s worth something, you can patent it, which means you can own it entirely.
BASCOMB: Well, in much of the western United States, land is owned by the federal government. This new lithium mine that’s in Nevada, which is almost 90% of the state of Nevada, is owned by the federal government, whether it’s the Bureau of Land Management National Park, what have you. But you write here that these mining companies that work on these public lands, they do not have to pay royalties or fees to access the land. I mean, oil companies have to pay royalties, why not mining companies?
ROBBINS: Well, that’s how the law was written because it wanted to benefit the miners who would come here and make as much money as they could and that would spur development. You know, what interests me is that a lot of the mining in the west is done by Canadian companies. They therefore benefit substantially from this archaic law. And then in this case, Lithium America is the largest Chinese shareholder. And the Chinese are one of our big competitors in lithium mining. So much of the benefits of the 1872 Mining Act go to other countries, mining companies, and other countries. And it seems a bit ironic that our competitors benefit from such a law that not only gives away our mineral deposits, but allows them to get away with less than a full reclamation of those sites.
BASCOMB: Let’s unpack that a bit. It looks like there are a lot of potential environmental issues here. And the main one of them is water. About 40% of the western watersheds you write about in your article have been contaminated by mining. What type of contamination are we talking about here?
ROBBINS: Well, in this case it could be sulfuric acid, a New York Times article said antimony is one of the minerals that can leach out. According to the Environmental Impact Statement, arsenic is another chemical that could leach into groundwater. A lot of times these mines with bare rock when it rains on them they create sulfuric acid that seeps into the water and that water, one of the ranchers said that that underground water could, could lead him to bankruptcy, if it becomes polluted because he won’t have enough to raise his cattle. It’s supposed to lower the water table by 12 feet according to the environmental documents. So there’s a whole host of things that state and federal regulators have said, well, we can live with that. But people say if things get out of control, or if they don’t go the way they plan, then we can have real damage here.
BASCOMB: Right. And you write that very often mining companies don’t stick around to clean up the mines once they’ve finished extracting the lucrative resources or to clean up the watershed, if they’ve contaminated. Taxpayers often end up with this bill, how much is it costing us?
ROBBINS: There are 140,000 abandoned mine sites out west. And two years ago it cost about $50 million for a single site to clean up and billions of dollars to fix these things. And there’s money in pending legislation in Congress that would add to that, because there are so many sites that haven’t been addressed.
BASCOMB: Let me clear things up. Because I think that’s a lot to wrap your mind around. We have a 150-year-old law that allows foreign companies from Canada, China, wherever they come from the United States, to extract these very, very valuable resources without paying royalties or money going to citizens of this country. The government, they’re taking those precious resources away, making a lot of money out of them, and they don’t necessarily have to pay for all the damage they might cause. What do we get out of it?
ROBBINS: Now society would say it’s essential for the future of clean energy, the Biden administration has made it a priority to extract lithium, cobalt and nickel and other essential elements for these batteries . But at the same time, they said that the mining law of 1872 had to be reformed. So we’ll see how it goes. Bills have been introduced time and time again, since even before electric vehicles became a thing. I’ve been covering this since the 1980s. And there have been a lot of bills tabled to reform the mining law of 1872. They’ve never been passed, there’s too much money to be made. And there is a lot of resistance from mining companies which are very powerful. And so any effort to push through congressional reform is unlikely to succeed. Experts tell me that the best bet for reform will come through regulation. The BLM and Forest Service will need to enact these regulations to enforce the law and reclamation requirements.
BASCOMB: Jim Robbins is a seasoned freelance journalist based in Montana. Jim, thank you for your time today.
ROBBINS: You’re welcome. Thank you for.