Mining, Mapping, Soils and Other Surface/Subsurface Issues (1/5/11)

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Mining, mapping, surveying and the management of public lands are controlled by the federal government, federal laws and federal regulations to varying degrees. Mining is primarily conducted by private industry in the U.S., but mining on public lands must satisfy federal laws and regulations. Geologic and other types of mapping and surveying are fundamental to the geosciences and to the management of natural resources. The U.S. Geological Survey, state geological surveys, institutions of higher education and industry are the primary groups that prepare and archive these maps. The Department of the Interior manages U.S. public lands and works to preserve the natural resources that lie within in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service and National Resources Conservation Service. This page is dedicated to federal government action and congressional hearings associated with a variety of surface and subsurface land issues including: mining, geologic mapping, forestry, and other public land management and preservation topics.

Recent Action

REE Bill Introduced in Waning Days of 111th Congress
Senator Bayh introduced the Rare Earths Supply-Chain Technology and Resources Transformation Act of 2010 (S. 4031) on December 15. The bill would establish a rare earth element (REE) materials research and development (R&D) program in the Department of Energy, authorize loan guarantees for REE mining, refining, and production, initiate an interagency task force on REE, initiate an assessment of REE resources, consider a REE national stockpile, and direct the secretaries of Energy and Interior to conduct a study on the feasibility of a REE supply chain and production cooperative among those involved in REE mining and production in the United States.

The measure builds upon two previous measures, the Rare Earths and Critical Materials Revitalization Act of 2010 (H.R. 6160) and the Rare Earths Supply Technology and Resources Transformation Act of 2010 (S.3521). Look for 112th Congress to consider critical minerals and materials in 2011, with these measures providing a blueprint of future legislation.

DOE Releases Critical Materials Strategy
The Department of Energy (DOE) released a report in December outlining the department’s activities to secure the beneficial use of critical materials in the U.S. energy industry. The report entitled Critical Materials Strategy follows months of supply constraints of critical rare earth elements (REE), and it estimates that REEs could become more scarce if renewable energy is rapidly deployed in the next decade. Five REEs (dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium) are identified as most critical in the short term, due to a lack of production and their importance to industry. The report outlines existing U.S. government programs for securing these and other critical materials and describes materials strategies from other nations as well.

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Previous Action

USGS Identifies U.S. Reserves of Rare Earth Elements (11/10)
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has released a new report on the global supply of rare earth elements (REE) and the local resources that have not been tapped for decades. The report is entitled The Principal Rare Earth Elements Deposits of the United States. It identifies REE deposits in 14 states, with the largest occurring at the Mountain Pass mine in California, Bokan Mountain in Alaska, and the Bear Lodge Mountains in Wyoming. It clarifies the difficulty in processing REEs, which often co-occur in multiple mineral phases, requiring complex chemical separations. Mining companies may bring several of these mines online in the next 5 years, but until those facilities are fully operational, the U.S. will rely almost exclusively on China for REE supplies.

China Restricts REE Exports (10/10)
The Chinese government has recently been accused of blocking rare earth element (REE) exports to Japan, after a disagreement over territorial waters. China operates a monopoly on mining and extraction for these important minerals, which are used in solar panels, rechargeable batteries, specialized military equipment and other products. There have also been concerns that China has halted exports to Europe and the U.S., but these restrictions may simply be a result of export quotas. In July, China announced a 79 percent decrease in REE exports for the remainder of 2010. China could face penalties under World Trade Organization (WTO) provisions if they halted exports. The U.S. Trade Representative is already investigating claims by the United Steelworkers that China is subsidizing exports of renewable energy products.

Greater than 90 percent of REE production is located in China, though deposits of the minerals are widespread: the U.S., for example, holds approximately 13 percent of global deposits in California, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, and Missouri. None of these U.S. deposits are currently being mined, but the Mountain Pass Mine in California, formerly the largest producer of REE materials worldwide, is set to open again in 2012.

For details of international response, see the New York Times account of the embargo and Germany’s reaction. As of October 28, China has resumed its export of rare earth elements (REE) to Japan and the West.

House and Senate Committees Discuss Rare Earth Element Bills (9/10)
Two bills encouraging the exploration, mining and processing of rare earth elements (REE) are being considered in the House and Senate. The House bill, the Rare Earths and Critical Materials Revitalization Act of 2010 (H.R. 6160), was introduced, amended and passed by the Science and Technology Committee within a 10 day period. It was then passed rapidly under suspension of the rules by the full House on September 29. See the markup summary for details on the amended bill. The measure creates an unfunded mandate for the establishment of a rare earth (RE) materials program and broadens a loan guarantee program for improved RE technologies. These programs would be administered by the Department of Energy (DOE).

The Senate bill, The Rare Earths Supply Technology and Resources Transformation Act of 2010 (S.3521) or RESTART Act, was discussed in a hearing by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on September 30. Like the House bill, the Senate bill includes no authorizations of any funding for REE work. Rather, it establishes a Rare Earth Policy Task Force in the Department of the Interior, and it directs the Secretary of Energy to describe and facilitate the extension of loan guarantee programs to industry stakeholders.

For a summary of the markup and hearing from AGI visit our hearings web page. For more information on the Senate hearing, see the committee’s web site.

USGS EDMAP Survey Results (7/10)
Each year, the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program (NCGMP) conducts a survey aimed at gauging the impacts of the EDMAP program on its participants. EDMAP, the education component of NCGMP, supports undergraduate and graduate students in a one-year mentored bedrock and surficial geologic mapping project that focuses on a specific geographic area. This interactive and meaningful program helps students gain experience and knowledge in geologic mapping and contributes to the efforts to produce geologic maps for the Nation.

Since 1996, NCGMP has supported geologic mapping efforts of more than 800 students working with more than 230 professors at 140 universities in 44 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. This year’s survey shows that EDMAP-supported students have near universal satisfaction with all aspects of the EDMAP experience, including the amount of knowledge gained and the adequacy of their preparation. Also, 82 percent of the participants stated that the program has helped them in some way, and all of the students have gone on to subsequent education or employment in the geosciences. Examples of the variety of positions the students have filled include research geologist, research analyst, project manager, and laboratory technician. More information on NCGMP and the EDMAP program can be found here.

Abandoned Mine Clean-Up Amendment Passes Committee (6/10)
On June 21, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee passed legislation (S. 2830)  that would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to broaden the uses of cleanup funds.  The 1977 act established the Abandoned Mine Fund, which collects royalties from coal production to cleanup abandoned coal mines. Some states also use the money to restore abandoned hardrock mines, which do not have a comparable cleanup program. It was unclear if the funds could legally be used for programs other than coal mine cleanup. S. 2830, sponsored by Energy and Natural Resources Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), amends the act to clearly allow states to use these funds for abandoned gold, copper and uranium mines.

Committee Passes Arctic Mapping Bill (6/10)
The House Natural Resources committee unanimously approved H.R. 2864, to increase the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) mapping efforts in the Arctic to delineate the extent of the U.S. continental shelf and ensure safe navigation of the Arctic Ocean. The bill, introduced by Representative Don Young (R-AK), amends the Hydrographic Services Improvement Act of 1998 to NOAA to acquire hydrographic data, provide hydrographic services, and conduct coastal change analyses as necessary to reach those goals. $10 million over the next two years would be dedicated to new hydrographic data and $5 million towards mapping the continental shelf.

Though NOAA can currently complete Arctic mapping, Young thinks the legislation is necessary to push NOAA forward more quickly. With a diminishing extent of sea ice, the Arctic Ocean is becoming more accessible to those looking for natural resources and new shipping lanes. Knowing the extent of the U.S. continental shelf will help the U.S. lay claim to potentially resource-rich territory in the Arctic. The data collection funded by the bill will help create a baseline map for any new energy development and safe navigation routes.

Hearing Held on Arctic Mapping Bill (4/10)
The House Natural Resources Committee is discussing a new bill to map the Arctic to delineate the extent of the U.S. continental shelf and for safe navigation of the Arctic Ocean. H.R. 2864, introduced by Representative Don Young (R-AK), amends the Hydrographic Services Improvement Act of 1998 to fund the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to acquire hydrographic data, provide hydrographic services, and conduct coastal change analyses as necessary to reach those goals. $10 million over the next two years would be dedicated to new hydrographic data and $5 million towards mapping the continental shelf.

With diminished sea ice extent, the Arctic Ocean is becoming more accessible to those looking for natural resources and new shipping lanes. Knowing the extent of the U.S. continental shelf will help the U.S. lay claim to potentially resource-rich territory in the Arctic. The data collection funded by the bill will help create a baseline map for any new energy development and safe navigation routes.

House Considers Helium-3 Shortage (4/10)
The House Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing in April to discuss the global shortage of the stable isotope helium-3. Helium-3 is a by-product of the Department of Energy’s production of tritium for nuclear weapons and that has been the primary source of the nation’s supply. Since nuclear weapons production has decreased so has the supply of helium-3. The isotope is used in medical imaging, radiation monitoring portals at ports and borders, oil and gas exploration, missile technology, neutron backscattering facilities and physics experiments.

Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) admonished the Energy Department for failing to notice the shortage and wisely manage the limited supply. An interagency task force in 2009 did address the decreasing supply by allocating helium-3 for fiscal years 2009 and 2010 and investigating alternatives technologies and alternative sources of helium-3. The task force continues to work on addressing the helium-3 shortage.

Geoscientists, who have expressed concerns about critical isotope and critical mineral shortages, should offer constructive comments to the task force and other stakeholders as well as considering the shortage of one isotope, element or mineral in the context of global demands for many materials.

House Begins Hearings on Next Farm Bill (4/10)
The House Agriculture Committee began a series of four field hearings on the next farm bill in mid-April. Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) have noted that the committee is in the very early stages of building a new bill, are concerned about funding levels and would like more information about reforming subsidies and considering new initiatives related to renewable energy and conservation. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the only witness at the first hearing, stated that the Administration does not have a specific proposal yet for the farm bill, but the Agriculture Department is focused on five key areas: broadband access in rural areas, renewable energy and biofuels, regional food systems and supply chains, ecosystem market incentives and forest restoration and conservation.

The last farm bill passed two years ago included about $200 billion in mandatory spending for subsidies, food aid, farmland energy projects and conservation projects. Congress typically completes a new farm bill every five years, so the House and the Administration are indeed in the very early stages of formulating farm policy for the nation. Geoscientists, especially soil scientists and land and water resource managers, should follow developments on farm policy in Congress and the Administration and offer constructive comments to improve the nation’s farm policy.

Rare Earth Element Bill Introduced in House (3/10)
Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO) introduced a bill, the Rare Earths Supply-Chain Technology and Resources Transformation Act of 2010 (H.R. 4866), that would authorize assessments and programs to secure a domestic rare earth element exploration, development and production system. Rare earth elements are critical for clean energy technologies, such as wind turbines, hybrid vehicles, catalytic converters and energy-efficient light bulbs. China produces more than 93 percent of the current supply of rare earth elements and policymakers are concerned about supply and demand pressures now and in the future. The measure includes some of the recommendations from a 2008 National Academy of Sciences report. Molycorp Minerals, the only domestic rare earth element producer is headquartered in Coffman’s district, although the one producing mine is located in California.

On the same day, March 17, the Department of Energy announced it will develop a strategic plan to ensure U.S. access to minerals critical to clean energy technologies. Stay tuned for more information about who will write the plan and when it will be available to the public.

Congress Looks into Abandoned Mine Clean-up and Abandons Mining Reform (3/10)
President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have proposed cuts to the Abandoned Mine Land program that have met with some opposition in Congress. The Abandoned Mine fund collects royalties from coal production to cleanup primarily coal mines that were abandoned before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 became law. The Department of the Interior fiscal year 2011 budget proposes cutting  payments to Wyoming, Montana, Louisiana and Texas and three tribes—the Crow, Hopi and Navajo—that do not  have high-priority coal cleanup sites. These cuts would save $1.2 billion over the next 10 years.

Some of the states also use the money to restore abandoned hardrock mines, which do not have a comparable cleanup program. Those states oppose the cuts, though it is unclear if the funds can legally be used for programs other than coal mine cleanup. To clarify the 1977 law, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has introduced legislation (S. 2830) that would specify the rights of states and tribes to use the money for hardrock mine reclamation.

Various environmental cleanup provisions for hardrock mining sites are in the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009 in the Senate and House (S. 796 and H.R. 699), however Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has declared there is no time for a hardrock mining reform bill on the floor this year. This leaves future funding for abandoned mine clean-up uncertain.

EPA Restricts Mountaintop Mining (3/10)
On April 1, 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new water quality standards for surface mining that should help restrict mountaintop mining operations from dumping waste into streams. The standard requires a specified level of conductivity in streams. Mining waste can add salts, sulfides and other pollutants that alter conductivity, so requiring a certain level of conductivity may prevent waste dumping. The regulations are effective immediately, however EPA is accepting public comment and may consider revisions. The regulations only apply to surface mines in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Senator Byrd (D-WV) praised the regulations and environmental groups called the action long overdue, while industry groups called the action a job killer.

Medical Isotopes Bill Passes House (11/09)
After a vote of 400-17, “The American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009” (H.R. 3276) passed the House on November 5, 2009. The measure as reported in the October Monthly Review, would “promote the production of domestic sources for medical isotopes” according to sponsor Ed Markey (D-MA).

Used in medical imaging, a current shortage of Molybdenum-99 has caused some delays in patient services. Legislators are concerned about a future shortage because the U.S. currently has no production capacity. Mo-99 is commonly produced from highly enriched uranium and that uranium can also be used in nuclear weapons, so the U.S. has previously restricted Mo-99 production and distribution. The House bill authorizes up to $163 million over 5 years for the Department of Energy (DOE) to promote Mo-99 production activities without highly-enriched uranium, bans the export of highly enriched uranium for Mo-99 production except for special circumstances, and requires DOE to retain responsibility for the final disposition of radioactive waste created by any use of highly enriched uranium for medical isotope imaging.

The Senate plans to hold a hearing to consider the bill on December 3, 2009.

EPA Caught Up in Mountaintop Mining Considerations (10/09)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on October 16 that it will retroactively revoke the permit given to Spruce No. 1 Mine in 2007 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The EPA says Spruce No. 1, the largest mountain-top removal coal mine in Appalachia, violates the Clean Water Act giving it the right to veto the USACE permit. EPA is calling for improvements to be made to the mine in order to reduce the environmental and water quality impacts. In addition, last month EPA announced that 79 pending mountaintop removal mine permits will be delayed for more intensive review.

Although these actions by EPA have been applauded by environmentalists, not everyone is happy about them. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said these events prove that the Obama administration is anti-coal and added that there is no possible way to clean up the climate without clean coal. The EPA stated that they are “committed to supporting coal mining in Appalachia, but only if it is done in a manner that complies with environmental laws.”

Beyond just environmental laws, the EPA is being asked to consider social justice in its decisions. A coalition of advocacy groups argues that low-income communities are disproportionately burdened by the consequences of mountaintop removal. The Sierra Club and the rest of the coalition groups say mountaintop mining destroys opportunities for “positive economic growth” in safer, healthier, and better paying jobs.

Jason Bostic of the West Virginia Coal Association argued that “if it wasn’t for the coal industry…there would be no economic activity.” Many industry groups agree with this sentiment. The Sierra Club commissioned a study, however, that found that the mountaintop mining “eliminates jobs, drains state budgets, and destroys the region’s potential to generate clean energy.” In addition, the report states that banning mountaintop mining would have very little effect on the price of electricity. The Sierra Club would like the government to reopen its 2003 environmental assessment of mining practices and take social justice and long-term economic impacts into consideration.

House Authorizes $10 Million for AmericaView (10/09)
The House approved a bill to establish a national cooperative geospatial mapping program. The National Land Remote Sensing Outreach Act (H.R. 2489) authorizes $10 million annually for an AmericaView program at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in fiscal years 2010 through 2019.

The program goal is to disseminate imagery from satellites and airplanes for education, research, assessment, and monitoring purposes across the nation. It is based on the current AmericaView project that started as a partnership between the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center and a consortium of universities that expanded the use and distribution of satellite data and imagery. The bill would create a consolidated program at the USGS.

A companion bill (S. 1078) was voted out of committee in the Senate in August, but is awaiting full Senate approval.

Congress Concerned About Access to Domestic Minerals (10/09)
An earmark to protect rare earth element mines and bills to promote access to molybdenum-99 isotopes show a growing concern in Congress over the dearth of domestic access to mineral resources.
 
The shortage of rare earth minerals prompted Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Jerry Lewis (R-CA) to add an earmark to the House Defense appropriations bill (H.R. 3326) for $3 million to help reopen a California rare earth mine. According to Lewis the controversial funds were necessary for Molycorp Minerals, owned in part by Goldman Sachs, to quell national security concerns. This appropriations bill is still awaiting conference committee approval.

Rare earth minerals have seen their value balloon in recent years, thanks to their utilization in high technology military devices and renewable energy applications like hybrid batteries and wind turbines. The growing interest in supply stems from progressively tighter restrictions on export from China, the world’s single dominant producer. China controls the vast majority of supply for all 17 rare earth elements, including up to 99 percent for some elements such as Terbium. After four years of decreasing permits for export, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has reportedly submitted a recommendation to the Chinese administration to further tighten exports. Amid global concern though, MITT responded that a ban would never be enforced.

On a different, but related issue, there is growing concern in the U.S. about the supply of the isotope, molybdenum-99, which is needed for medical imaging. The U.S. stopped production of the isotope, which is a fission product of highly purified uranium-235, partly out of concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation and partly out of concerns about nuclear waste disposal. Earlier this year, a reactor in Canada used to produce the isotope broke down, nearly crippling American supplies. The American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009 (H.R. 3276) would promote developing U.S. production of the isotope, molybdenum-99, according to its sponsor, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA), to ensure a stable and consistent supply of the isotope for cancer scans and brain imaging in American health care facilities.

The molybdenum isotope concern has also been addressed in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (H.R. 2647) which became public law this month. In addition, H.R. 2647 requires the Defense Science Board to study and report on the extent to which military capabilities are impacted by supplies and the potential shortage of rare earth minerals.

DOI to Eliminate Royalty-in-Kind Program (9/09)
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cancelled the royalty-in-kind program, saying that in his view, the program has been “a blemish” on the department. The program allowed industry to bypass cash royalty payments by providing oil and gas directly to the Department of the Interior (DOI) instead. DOI reported last year that nearly a third of the royalty-in-kind program staff was receiving gifts and gratuities from oil and gas companies doing business with the agency. Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) accused the employees of “cozying up with industry officials” rather than getting fair returns for taxpayers. Rahall was pleased with Salazar’s announcement, having recently introduced his own bill (H.R. 3534) to give the federal royalty system a make over, including termination of the royalty-in-kind program.

The American Petroleum Institute is opposed to terminating the royalty-in-kind program because they think the program is cost-effective and reduced paperwork. The DOI’s Minerals Management Service has expressed similar views, saying the program simplifies royalty collections, keeps down administrative costs, and curtails conflicts with energy companies. Regardless, Salazar said a secretarial order to end the royalty-in-kind program will be issued within the next few weeks.

Senate Bill to Revoke Mining Industry Tax Refund (8/09)
The current federal tax code considers the removal of minerals to be a depreciation of a mine’s assets. This entitles mine owners to a tax refund. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have introduced a bill, S. 1570, to change that tax code classification, so that mine owners would not receive a tax break on the depreciating value of the mine. The senators argue that the mining companies are receiving double subsidies without providing any revenue to the federal government, such as a royalty, for using public lands.

The new bill could generate $50 million per year and half of that revenue would be directed to the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Trust Fund to help clean-up abandoned mines. Mining industry officials say the logic fails as it does not take into account the high costs of mineral development and refining. The policy will be bad for attracting future mining investment, especially combined with the expected cost increase from changes to the Mining Act of 1872 already proposed in Congress (S. 796 and H.R. 699).

See last month’s article on Mining Clean-up Regulations:
http://www.agiweb.org/gap/email/review0709.html#13

Senate Committee Approves Geospatial Mapping Bill (8/09)
The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously passed a bill to establish a comprehensive geospatial imagery mapping program at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on August 5, 2009. The bill ( S. 1078) was introduced by Senators Tim Johnson (D-SD) and John Voinovich (R-OH) in May. The program would work to disseminate imagery from satellites and airplanes for education, research, assessment, and monitoring purposes across the nation. It is based on the AmericaView project that started as a partnership between the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center and a consortium of ten Ohio universities that cooperatively expanded the use and distribution of satellite data and imagery. The EROS satellite data was given to these universities, who established the computer and network infrastructure to distribute the data to researchers and citizens.

AmericaView now has members in 35 states with programs dedicated to expanding access to satellite data. The bill would consolidate the state programs and the EROS Center to form the AmericaView program at the USGS. The program would benefit local, state, and federal agencies, industry, communities, and educational institutions by making national remote sensing data accessible and easy to use.

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals Resources is considering an identical bill (H.R. 2489) introduced by Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) and Steven LaTourette (R-OH). The House bill has not moved to the full committee yet and is behind the Senate bill.

Mountaintop Mining Rule Upheld (8/09)
The Obama administration’s attempt to revoke a mountaintop mining rule made at the end of the Bush administration was deemed in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act. A federal judge ruled the federal agency did not follow the statutory procedures for repealing a previous ruling, such as providing advanced notice and a comment period.

The Bush administration rule expanded the 1983 buffer law requiring a 100 foot space between streams and mining operations to include all bodies of water. However, the rule exempted permanent spoil fills and coal-waste disposal facilities from the buffer law, allowing them to put waste materials into stream beds. After the court ruling, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar indicated that the Department would work swiftly to prepare a new rule.

USGS Grants for Mineral Research (8/09)
In order to better understand and assess U.S. nonfuel mineral resources, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is awarding up to $250,000 in grants to fund mineral resource research through its Mineral Resources External Research Program. The program will award grants to universities, state agencies, tribal governments or organizations, and industry or other private sector organizations for the fiscal year 2010. Research must include data collection, compilation, and interpretation. Topics must address one of the program’s long-term goals. The program has outlined specific needs for proposals, including assessments of existing and potential mineral deposits, advanced modeling of mineral deposits, or environmental impacts of mineral deposits containing specific minerals or compounds. The research projects will help the USGS prepare for a new national mineral assessment that will begin in 2012. Interested researchers should apply from August 17 to September 29 through Grants.gov.

For more information, visit the Mineral Resource External Research Program site.

EPA Proposes Mining Clean-up Regulations (7/09)
EPA has announced that it will write regulations on financial responsibility requirements for the hardrock mining industry. Hardrock mining contributes to about a quarter of the nation’s toxic releases and mining companies to date have been able to leave behind an environmental mess that American taxpayers are forced to pay for, according to the EPA. The agency was supposed to draft rules after the Superfund program began in 1983, but has cited competing priorities and insufficient funds until a recent court order instructed them to do so.

EPA will first determine what hardrock mining facilities will be required to provide financial assurances that they can pay for clean-up necessary from their operations under the Superfund law. These will likely include facilities that extract metals and minerals and processing plants. They plan to have their proposed rule ready by spring 2011. They have yet to say what the financial assurances may be, but they could include trust funds, surety bonds, insurance, or letters of credit naming the government as the beneficiary. Once EPA proposes its rule for the hardrock mining industry, it will look at other industries that warrant financial assurances rules, including wood-treatment facilities, hazardous waste generators, and metal finishers.

EPA’s announcement comes at the same time that Congress is discussing hardrock mining reform to update the 1872 mining law. The House and Senate versions of the bill set aside certain public lands vulnerable to environmental degradation from hardrock mining. They also propose royalties to be imposed on mining operations that could in part pay for an abandoned mine trust fund to rehabilitate the land and improve public safety.

Administration Issues a Mountaintop Mining Memorandum (6/09)
The Obama administration issued a memorandum on June 11 calling for an end to streamlined mountaintop coal mining permits and increased protection of waterways. The memorandum does not prohibit mountaintop mining. It aims to improve oversight, modify the “nationwide permits” to protect waterways in Appalachia, and curb the most environmentally damaging techniques through a collaborative effort by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and Department of the Interior.

This follows an announcement in March 2009 that the EPA would begin reviewing pending permits from the USACE. A week later after the announcement, the U.S. District Court in West Virginia found the USACE erroneously allowed companies to dump mining waste into rivers and streams. The USACE permits were issued under a “nationwide permit” allowed for projects believed to have little environmental impact. The court ruled, though, that the USACE did not conduct proper environmental impact assessments. In May the EPA concluded that of the 48 permits it reviewed, 42 are allowed to proceed and 6 are put on hold.

On June 22, in a separate case, the Supreme Court ruled that mine waste site permitting rights are given to the USACE, not the EPA, under the Clean Water Act. This case involved an Alaskan gold mine dumping tailings into a nearby lake, and it is unclear how this will affect the mountaintop coal mining debate.

House Introduces Deep Seabed Mineral Resources Bill (6/09)
On June 11, 2009, Delegate Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) introduced a deep seabed mineral resources bill (H.R. 2834). The bill would direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to “conduct a technological capability assessment, survey, and economic feasibility study regarding recovery of minerals, other than oil and natural gas, from the shallow and deep seabed of the United States” and submit a report on their findings within two years of enactment. The seabed is defined as the areas within 200 miles of territorial seas. The bill does not authorize any specific appropriations for this work. The measure puts NOAA in charge of the survey but calls for NOAA to consult with other appropriate Federal agencies.

Public Lands Omnibus Signed by Obama (3/09)
After failing in the Senate last year and the House earlier this month, the Public Lands Omnibus (introduced to the 111th Congress as S. 22, but passed as H.R. 146) was signed into law by President Obama on March 30 (Public Law 111-11). The omnibus contains over 160 bills authorizing many conservation measures. Beyond expanding national parks and protecting 2 million acres of federal lands, the bill contains many programs to address ocean research, water and climate change, fossils on public lands, and geologic mapping. The passage marks “one of the most significant protections for our treasured landscapes in a generation,” according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Bills such as the Federal Oceanic Acidification Research and Monitoring (FOARAM) Act of 2009, the Ocean and Coastal Mapping Integration Act, and the Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System Act of 2009 passed as part of the package. FOARAM authorizes $150 million over the next five years for federal agencies to monitor the effects of ocean acidification. The Interagency Committee on Ocean and Coastal Mapping will establish a plan for mapping the Great Lakes and U.S. coastal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zones, and the continental shelf in order to advance marine science. The National Ocean Research Leadership Council will create an observing system to protect key coastal areas. Programs at the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Energy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will coordinate to address the potential water shortages, conflicts, and hazards due to climate change.

The National Geologic Mapping Reauthorization Act, included in the omnibus package, provides funding to the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program to continue work on a national geologic map database and increases the allocation for state and educational components through fiscal year 2018.Also included is the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, which prevents taking fossils from public land without a permit with an amendment allowing casual, or unknowing, collecting of common fossils.

To help the omnibus through the House after failing by two votes in early March, the Senate employed a procedural strategy allowing a previously passed bill, the Revolutionary War Battlefields Protection Act (H.R. 146), to be a vehicle for the Public Lands Omnibus. Since H.R. 146 had already passed in the House, the ensuing vote would just require a simple majority to approve the single, albeit all encompassing, amendment. There was hesitation in the House when some members tried to add an additional amendment allowing concealed weapons in national parks, but the bill passed without amendments in a 285-140 vote on March 25.

Mining Legislation Makes Its Way Through Congress (3/09)
The House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing February 26, 2009 on the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009 (H.R. 699). This measure would amend the Hardrock Mining Act of 1872, allowing for various royalties, wilderness sanctuaries, and  regulations to prevent degradation of public lands, and petitions to withdraw specific federal land from possible mining. A similar mining bill passed the House in 2007, but failed to reach the Senate floor.

On April 2, 2009, Senator Jeff Bingaman introduced a mining reform bill that is similar to the House version. The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009 (S. 796) would eliminate patents, increase fees, collect royalties, require permits, ensure water reclamation, limit forest system land degradation, review future mining claims on certain public lands and establish an abandoned mine reclamation program. (3/09)

Supreme Court Deems Forest Service Safe from Lawsuits (3/09)
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that environmental advocacy groups cannot challenge federal regulations for public lands unless the advocates can prove that they, as individuals, are directly threatened by proposed policies. The decision sided with the Bush administration’s stance that environmental groups should not be allowed to sue the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) on land management rules that may conflict with congressional directives.

The Summers v. Earth Island Institute case pitted the Earth Island Institute and other environmental groups against the USFS over proposed logging of over 200 acres of burned forest in the Sequoia National Forest. In the decision, the Supreme Court considered whether the USFS violated the 1992 Appeals Reform Act (Public Law 102-381) when it limited the rights of the public to due notice, appeals, and comment on certain projects.  The Forest Service Decision Making and Appeals Reform section of the 1992 act guaranteed the USFS allowed commentary from the general public when forming resource management plans.

Justice Antonin Scalia stated in his opinion that “except when necessary in the execution of that function, courts have no charter to review and revise legislative and executive action.” The Bush administration also sought more stringent challenge regulations in specific cases, but the Supreme Court ruling did not address this request. Although disappointed from the ruling on Summers v. Earth Island Institute, Western Environmental Law Center attorney Matt Kenna indicated, “We are gratified, somewhat that the court did not adopt the very extreme position the Bush administration had taken in the case.”

The potential implications of the ruling are varied. The dissenting judges questioned how the decision will affect future environmental decisions and whether the courts would protect landowners seeking protection from resource degradation that may occur indirectly or in the future. Justice Stephen Breyer cited the 2007 Supreme Court Massachusetts v. EPA case. In that decision, the court sided with the state of Massachusetts’ claim that the EPA failed to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions, even though damage from EPA’s negligence may not occur for several decades.

Industry groups dependent on logging expressed relief with the decision. A representative of several logging-dependent organizations stated that businesses operate with a known, specific set of regulations and environmental restrictions. When non-regulated third parties challenge activities, district courts across the nation often implement contradictory injunctions and disrupt industry activities. Environmentalists suggest the decision will severely affect the public’s right to participate in public land management. (3/09)

Lands Omnibus Legislation Passes in the Senate (1/09)
The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (S. 22) passed the Senate by a vote of 73-21 on January 15, 2009, fulfilling a promise of Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) to reconsider the measure promptly after it was dismissed in the 110th Congress. The omnibus brings together 160 bills, including reauthorization of geologic mapping and fossil preservation on public lands. The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

There are many additional geoscience-related activities authorized in the omnibus including national wilderness preservation, national rivers, the national landscape conservation system, national conservation areas, watershed management, watershed restoration and enhancement, forest landscape restoration, water projects, ocean exploration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration undersea research, ocean and coastal mapping integration, the integrated coastal and ocean observation system, federal ocean acidification research and monitoring, coastal and estuarine land conservation and funding for Smithsonian Institution research facilities.

Geoscientists are encouraged to contact their representative and ask for support for the measure as soon as possible given that a vote may be scheduled within a few weeks. (01/09)

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Background

Mining
The General Mining Law, or Hard Rock Mining Act, of 1872 was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant to protect and encourage mining and settlement in the Western territories. In the past 136 years, the law itself has been subjected to minimal change, but its scope has been greatly limited. The most significant change to the 1872 Mining Law was the removal of some federal lands and mineral resources from its jurisdiction. The creation of the National Park system and National Historic Sites established federal lands that are protected from mining. Indian reservations, military reservations, wilderness areas, and water and power projects have also removed land from the purview of the Mining Law. The Act originally applied to all minerals except coal. In 1920 the Mineral Leasing Act set new policies for the mining of oil and gas, oil shale, phosphate, and sodium on public lands, removing them from control of the Hard Rock Mining Act. Other mineral resources were later added to this list.

Reform of the 1872 Mining Law has been discussed from as early as 1934 and many expected that long-anticipated changes might finally take place in the 110th Congress. The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007 (H.R. 2262) passed the House in late 2007, but never made it to the Senate floor. H.R. 2262 would impose a royalty system on hardrock mining that is similar to royalties for oil, gas, and coal industries. Part of the revenue generated from the new royalties would be dedicated to the cleanup of the estimated 100,000 abandoned mine sites located on national forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. The bill would also give the federal government more authority over where hardrock mining can take place. Although a number of political issues delayed action on mining reform in the 110th Congress, it is likely to continue to receive attention in the 111th Congress. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has said the issue will be a priority and Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and sponsor of H.R. 2262, has said he is open to the possibility of developing another House bill. So the stage is set for action in the 111th Congress.

Mapping
The National Geologic Mapping Act of 1992 established the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program (NCGMP). The program is designed to increase coordination between the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the State Geologic Surveys to develop geologic maps through three component programs: FEDMAP (USGS); STATEMAP (State Geological Surveys); and EDMAP (student program). The federal government provides matching-funds grants to State Geological Surveys and universities who successfully complete a competitive application process. The Act was reauthorized in 1997 and 1999 with consistent increases as well as some amendments. The program is currently seeking reauthorization through 2010.

The Geologic Mapping Act has generally received widespread, bipartisan support since its inception, although some have pushed for the increased privatization of the mapping process in the past. Geologic maps are recognized as important components of federal, state, local, and tribal efforts to manage mineral and water resources, mitigate hazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes, plan urban development, and ensure security. NCGMP has demonstrated successes in all three major programs it is currently running by producing 7,500 geologic maps and developing a database of high quality digital geologic maps. The mapping process is never complete, however, as maps may be continually updated and refined through the use of advancing technologies such as digitization.

An omnibus package with more than 150 bills related to public lands, water and resources, including the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Reauthorization Act of 2008 (H.R. 5171 and S. 240) was dismissed at the end of the 110th Congress, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) vowed to bring the measure up as one of the first actions of the new 111th Congress.

In an international effort to increase access to geologic maps, the OneGeology project was launched in August 2008 at the 33rd International Geological Conference. The purpose of the project is to make web accessible the best available geological map data worldwide at a scale of about 1:1,000,000 million. It serves as a geological survey contribution to the International Year of Planet Earth

Public Lands
Public lands are federal, state, county or municipal areas that belong to U.S. citizens. Public lands provide open space, clean water, habitat for plants and animals, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. In the United States, there are over 500 million acres of public lands. The Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Parks Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service have jurisdiction over federal public lands. These lands include national parks, national forests, national conservation areas, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and national historic and scenic trails. The Bureau of Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior holds 66 million acres of land in trust for American Indians and Alaskan natives.

Many of the country’s natural resources come from public lands. The Bureau of Reclamation manages 479 dams and 348 reservoirs, which provide water for over 30 million people. Numerous energy projects also operate on public lands.  In all, energy projects on federal lands and offshore areas contribute about 30% of domestic energy production. These projects include oil (30% of total production), coal (45%), natural gas (38%), hydropower (17%), and geothermal (50%) production.

An omnibus package with more than 150 bills related to public lands, water and resources, was dismissed at the end of the 110th Congress, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) vowed to bring the measure up as one of the first actions of the new 111th Congress.

Fossils
The protection and preservation of fossils on public lands remains a contentious subject as paleontological societies have been working with both Congress and federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Forest Service, to develop comprehensive legislation to prevent damage and the unauthorized removal of fossils from public lands. Such efforts must also consider appropriate accessibility to amateur fossil collectors and commercial fossil interests.

In response to a congressional request, eight federal agencies released the report Fossils on Federal and Indian Lands in May 2000. The report acknowledged the importance of fossils to the heritage of the United States, and that they are a rare resource containing scientific, educational, commercial, and recreational values. In order to keep scientifically important specimens in the public trust and streamline the collection requirements, the report recommended a framework of fossil management analogous to the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Any future action should increase penalties for fossil theft from federal lands with consideration given to the value of fossils and any damage caused to them, restrict collection of vertebrate fossil to qualified personnel, recognize the rarity of some invertebrate and plant fossils, and emphasize the education of federal managers, prosecutors, and law enforcement personnel on the value of fossils.

Sources: AGI's Monthly Review, E&E News, Thomas

Contributed by Corina Cerovski-Darriau, Rachel Poor, and Linda Rowan, Government Affairs staff; Merilie Reynolds, AGI/AAPG Fall 2008 Intern; Joey Fiore, AGI/AIPG Summer 2009 Intern; Mollie Pettit, AGI/AAPG Fall 2009 Intern; Elizabeth Brown, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern; Elizabeth Huss, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern; Kiya Wilson, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern; and Matthew Ampleman, AGI/AAPG Fall 2010 Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's summaries and updates for Mining, Geologic Mapping, Public Lands, and Fossils on Public Lands in the 110th Congress.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on January 5, 2011