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In The Midst Of The Budget Battle, Congress Is Handing Out Favors To The Mining Industry

By Jessica Goad, Guest Contributor

"In The Midst Of The Budget Battle, Congress Is Handing Out Favors To The Mining Industry"

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Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah.

Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah.

CREDIT: The Mining Letter

With reports that the Republican party is in a state of “civil war” over whether to shut down the government and default on the nation’s debts as part of its 42nd effort to defund Obamacare, House Republicans are in clear agreement on at least one thing: giving mining and timber companies a sweetheart deal on publicly-owned resources and exempting them from environmental laws.

By several measures, the mining industry already enjoys the benefits of friendly laws and environmental loopholes. Under the General Mining Law of 1872, for example, mining companies pay no royalties on the gold, silver, copper, and other taxpayer-owned minerals that they extract from taxpayer-owned public lands. And the industry is exempt from portions of environmental laws like the Clean Water Act.

And yet, these facts didn’t stop National Mining Association — which spent nearly $5 million on lobbying last year alone — CEO Hal Quinn from complaining that the industry:

…remain[s] burdened by an antiquated and duplicative permitting system that discourages investment and jeopardizes the growth of downstream industries, related jobs and technological innovation that depend on a secure and reliable mineral supply chain.

One of the bills, which will likely be up for a vote next week, is the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2013 (H.R. 687). It would require the U.S. Forest Service to trade publicly-owned forest lands that contain a major copper deposit for certain private lands owned by the Resolution Copper Mining company, a subsidiary of multinational mining conglomerates Rio Tinto and BHP-Billiton.

The bill not only gives away taxpayer-owned copper deposits to a private company, but it also bypasses the standard requirement that the federal government analyze the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of land exchanges under the National Environmental Policy Act.

H.R. 687 is strongly opposed by rock climbers whose access to the recreation areas would be lost by the privatization, as well as Native American tribes who have sacred sites on the land.

The second bill, the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013 (H.R. 761) passed the House on Wednesday night and gives the mining industry several new shortcuts around environmental protections. It would allow federal agencies, for example, to declare that a proposed mining project does not constitute “a major federal action” and therefore permit applications would not need to be subjected to environmental review and public comment. It also places an arbitrary deadline of 30 months on any permitting decisions regardless of the size of the project or controversy.

Mining interests aren’t the only ones getting a great deal in the House this week. The chamber today is also debating the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act (H.R. 1526) which would — for the first time ever — legislatively mandate levels of logging in national forests. The Obama administration has threatened to veto the bill, saying that it would not only “undermine appropriate management and stewardship of these lands which belong to all Americans,” but would “increase litigation risk.”

Jessica Goad is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.

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