Subcommittee Members Present
Full Committee Members Present
The Senate Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing on Thursday, September 30th to discuss a Senate bill for rare earth elements (REEs) and what the federal government can do to jump-start a dormant U.S. industry. The hearing follows closely on the heels of a threatened export ban of REEs from China to Japan. The hearing also continues a debate of the importance of REEs to national security as outlined in separate House and Senate bills.
Opening the hearing, Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) discussed an apparent halt of REE exports from China to Japan, as reported in the New York Times. The block was threatened because of a dispute between the two countries over territorial waters that they both claim. This action raised concerns about the REE monopoly that China holds. China supplies about 97% of the REE market and thus has the ability to influence global supplies. “China’s industry is on track to absorb all REE production by 2012,” Chairwoman Cantwell warned, adding that “supply constraints are likely in the next few years.” Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) further cautioned that, though the U.S. holds about 13% of global REE reserves, “it is very very difficult to extract that 13%.”
To address this concern, two REE development bills have been introduced in the House and the Senate. The Senate bill, the Rare Earths Supply Technology and Resources Transformation Act, or RESTART Act of 2010 (S. 3521), has been introduced in committee, while the House bill, the Rare Earth and Critical Materials Development Act of 2010 (H.R. 6160), has been fast tracked through the Science and Technology Committee and passed the full House on September 29. This bill will be taken up by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee after the November elections. For more information on the provisions in that bill, including research and development (R&D) and loan guarantee programs under DOE, neither of which are funded in the bill, please see a summary of the amended version.
Apart from the bills themselves, testimony focused on the basic technical, economical, and regulatory obstacles to establishing a revitalized REE supply chain. The first witness, David Sandalow, DOE’s Assistant Secretary of Policy and International Affairs, stressed three key approaches to meeting the challenges of REE supply: (1) globalizing the supply chain of REE; (2) developing materials that can substitutes for REE; and (3) enhancing the recycling and reuse of REE. When questioned, Sandalow declined to offer specific examples of the DOE’s involvement in these areas, but he did highlight the importance of collecting more data on REE extraction and use. “I do strongly believe that we need more and better information on this topic,” he concluded, adding that R&D funding, and extended loan guarantees would contribute to a new U.S. supply chain. Chairwoman Cantwell asked if the DOE had any views on S. 3521, but Sandalow declined to offer an opinion.
Testimony continued with the oral remarks from three REE stakeholders: Roderick Eggert of the Colorado School of Mines, Preston Rufe of an Idaho mining company, and Peter Brehm of a Washington state renewable energy corporation. Testimony from the witnesses, and questions from the subcommittee for this portion of the hearing, centered on what further actions could be taken to develop an REE supply chain, and what critical actions could be taken in the case of a trade shortage
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) challenged the witnesses to address the immediate imperative of trade conflicts. “If trade conflicts escalate, you could see further constraints on the part of the Chinese,” he suggested, asking what actions would be necessary in that case. “Suppose you had a magic wand,” he asked.
“The magic wand would have to be in the financial area,” Rufe answered, focusing specifically on loan guarantees for REE extraction and use. Brehm also highlighted the importance of loan guarantees, but he expressed a concern that the Senate bill does not authorize the funds for such a purpose. That is, the bill creates an unfunded mandate. “We are concerned [about] the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee extension,” he appealed. “The DOE doesn’t have enough money to support the pipeline [of renewable energy development] much less the money to expand the pipeline.”
In line with the national security issue, Ranking Member Risch asked if the panelists were aware of any REE that is eminently crucial to national security concerns. While recognizing the case for national security, the panelists declined to pick any specific REE. “I’m really not in favor of special treatment for certain elements,” Eggert explained. Eggert did, however, highlight a National Research Council (NRC) study which identified eleven possible critical elements, including indium, manganese, niobium, platinum, and other metals. These were chosen by the NRC as elements that are important to manufacturing and particularly difficult to substitute. Summarizing that report, Eggert called for an expansion of the authority and funds given to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Information Team, which is the federal government’s only program devoted to REE development. The study also requested formal communication between that entity and the private sector regarding the type and quality of information it collects. Eggert personally expressed the understanding that rare earth elements are not especially rare or difficult to extract. “It is the lack of diversified supply,” he explained, “domestic or foreign that leads to supply risk.”
Cantwell asked if “there were anything we can do to balance out the clout of China,” perhaps, she suggested, by encouraging a more global supply. Eggert declined to offer prescriptions for such an effort, emphasizing instead the importance of recycling and developing ore mining capacity in the U.S. Alternatively, he added, research on material substitutes could benefit from federal involvement and could enhance economic security regarding REE.
While other witnesses offered multiple perspectives regarding the development, extraction, and use, of REE, consensus centered on the need for financial support in the form of loan guarantees, and for increased regulatory certainty in the industry. “We see a moving bar on what the standard is,” Rufe appealed, commenting on water quality regulations still in development. Rufe’s corporation has developed a cobalt mine, which when it opens will be the only operating cobalt mine in the U.S. When asked by Ranking Member Risch what, if any, obstacles remained in the successful completion of the mine, Mr. Rufe answered that a Superfund bond requirement for insurance remains the only barrier, though it is not a small one.
Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) prompted the discussion by asking why a company might have difficulty with the regulatory environment, when mining companies in his district have expressed satisfaction with current regulation. “I would distinguish between relaxing environmental standards and improving the efficiency,” Eggert answered. Similarly, Brehm was quick to point out that they were not requesting a loosening of environmental standards, but rather a clear signal from the regulatory agencies. Rufe added that new water quality regulations were his chief concern regarding future regulatory uncertainty.
The hearing concluded with Ranking Member Risch’s call for further action on the issue. “This is something that deserves the attention of the U.S. Congress,” he declared. The previous day, the House had voted 348-78 to give President Obama the authority to impose import tariffs on Chinese goods subsidized by an undervalued currency. Analysts say the President is unlikely to wield such authority, but the vote raises speculation on the likelihood and impacts of a trade war between the two countries. “If trade conflicts escalate between the Unites States and China… you could see further [REE] restraints on the part of the Chinese,” McCain concluded.
Testimony from the witnesses, as well as a video archive of the entire hearing is available from the committee website. Please see Thomas for summaries, major actions, and full text of H.R. 6160 and S. 3521. A copy of the NRC report, is also available from the National Academies Press.
The House Committee on Science and Technology met on Thursday, September 23, to mark up a bill to provide grants for nuclear research and development (R&D), as well as a bill authorizing loan guarantees for the exploration and processing of rare earth elements (REE). Both bills received positive comments from the majority and minority parties. “[These bills] will help America capture the lead and achieve a clean energy economy,” Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) stated in his opening comments. The Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010 (H.R. 5866), introduced by Representative Dahlkemper (D-PA), was marked up first, and was followed by the Rare Earth and Critical Materials Revitalization Act (H.R. 6160), introduced by Representative Gordon.
Committee Members Present
Convening a hearing on the potential shortage of rare earth elements, the subcommittee chairman joked, was probably addressing a topic most of the committee had not thought about since their high school chemistry exams. Yet these elements play a key role in renewable energy technology, like hybrid vehicle batteries and wind turbines, and the U.S. is worried it may face a shortage in the upcoming years. House Science and Technology Investigation and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) contended that the main issue is access, since currently 90 percent of the world’s supply of rare earths is controlled by China.
House Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) said, “It appears that we could benefit from more research both in basic and applied materials sciences” to address the growing demand for rare earth elements. This is not the first time the concern has been raised. In the 1980’s, this committee established a policy calling for more comprehensive research and development of minerals and materials. However the program was not sustained over the years, and has since disintegrated. Subcommittee Chairman Miller asked if the old program had been maintained, would this hearing be necessary today?
“Rare earths” is really a misnomer. This group of 17 elements, consisting of scandium, yttrium, and the lanthanides, are actually relatively abundant on the Earth’s surface. They are just difficult to extract, and currently Molycorp Minerals has the only rare earth mine in the U.S. This is coupled with the rising concern that China has a “near monopoly” on the supply and is exploiting their position, explained Ranking Member Paul Broun (R-GA). He claimed China controlled 95 percent of the world supply, causing Miller to exclaim that the urgency for this hearing is blatantly obvious if in the time between Broun and him speaking China gained control of an additional 5 percent.
Dr. Steven Frieman, speaking on behalf of the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Critical Material Impacts on the U.S. Economy, described the need to address supply and demand of critical minerals. He referred to the 2008 NRC report Minerals, Critical Minerals, and the U.S. Economy for recommendations.
Dr. Steven Duclos of General Electric Global Research group called for a lead federal agency to monitor, assess, and respond to issues pertaining to the rare earths. He suggested that long-term supply contracts, recycling technology for critical minerals, and research into possible substitutes all done through a systems approach would mediate future risk.
Dr. Karl A Gschneidner, a professor at Iowa State University and researcher of rare earth minerals, called for a centralized research center dedicated to basic research and training the new workforce since U.S. expertise in this area “is virtually zero.”
Mark Smith of Molycorp Minerals, the only rare earth mine “shovel ready” in the western hemisphere, reiterated the increasing need for these minerals as the country grows its renewable energy sector. He claimed China controlled 97 percent, adding to Chairman Miller’s increasing alarm. Smith explained that China is “accelerating consumption of their own rare earths,” which will lead to a supply gap as soon as 2012.
Terence Stewart of Stewart and Stewart said the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) had named possible substitutes to rare earths, and encouraged exploring this option. He was mostly concerned with how China is handling their export taxes, and possible trade violations.
Subcommittee Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Broun, and Committee Chairman Gordon asked if there was an exisiting federal agency that could take the lead on rare earth s research and assessment. The witnesses advocated giving whatever agency full authority for monitoring as well as assessment. Duclos cautioned that only with constant monitoring will you see the gradual onset of a crisis situation like we are approaching now. Frieman said the first step for a national early warning system would be updated data. Smith said USGS has done an outstanding job of identifying the problem and providing data, and suggested they take the lead. Gschneidner suggested Department of Energy (DOE) or Department of Defense (DOD).
Gschneider reiterated that it is not just a supply issue; it is a workforce issue as well. He advocated a centralized research center housed at a university to draw together researchers, students, and data. By Smith’s count, there are only 17 U.S. scientists working on rare earths competing with the hundreds in China, and there are no U.S. students in the pipeline.
With the pressing need for domestic supply apparent, Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA) asked about the timeline and scope of the Molycorp Mountain Pass Mine. Mountain Pass Mine will be mining all lanthanides, and can extract 9 of the 15 by 2012. To get the rest of the lanthanides, Smith said Molycorp needs to secure more funding. Even then, they do not have access to scandium and yttrium. These are only available in China, Canada, and Australia.
Mike Coffman (R-CO) asked how the opening of the Mountain Pass Mine will alleviate U.S. dependence on China. Smith replied that Molycorp cannot meet the full needs of the U.S. for hybrid vehicles at current design capacity, or supply those 2 missing rare earths. However, he hopes to double that capacity to 40,000 tons with new permits. Gschneider indicated the Canadians and Australians will have good mines for scandium and yttrium, but those mines will not be producing until a few years after Mountain Pass Mine.
Coffman asked what could inhibit the proposed mid-2012 start date for the Mountain Pass Mine. Smith said it was only a matter of money. Molycorp was hoping for a DOE loan guarantee for the Mountain Pass Mine, but was denied because it is “too far upstream” from energy production. Smith is still pursuing DOE funding, which would leave “no doubt in [his] mind” that Molycorp could make the start date. Molycorp is the “only game in the U.S. right now” and financing needs to be in place by this summer to avoid delays.
The full text of the witness testimonies, opening statements, and a video archive of the hearing can be found here.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to discuss the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009 (H.R. 3276), which passed the House on November 5, 2009. The goal of the bill is to promote domestic production of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99)—the parent isotope of technetium-99m (Tc-99m) used in medical diagnostic tests for various cancers and other procedures—and to condition and phase out the export of highly enriched uranium (HEU) associated with the production of medical isotopes.
Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) was excited by the possibilities outlined in the January 2009 National Research Council report on Medical Isotope Production Without Highly Enriched Uranium, and wanted “to work on the needs of industry to make this transition [away from HEU] because ultimately it is the industry that will produce the isotopes we need.” Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was worried about the effect of shortages of Mo-99 on medical diagnostic procedures as aging reactors are being decommissioned or more frequently shut down for repairs. She pointed out that “we rely entirely upon foreign sources for these isotopes” and urged that medical isotopes be included in the committee’s discussions on energy independence and energy self-sufficiency. Even though the bill does not “provide a near-term solution to the shortage that we are experiencing today or the even greater shortage that we could experience next year,” Senator Murkowski thought it was “more important that we get the policy right rather than try to rush something into law.”
Dr. Parrish Staples of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) claimed that the Mo-99 supply “interruptions put patients’ lives at risk.” He urged a focus on domestic supply, which is now “technically and economically feasible” without HEU. NNSA will be requesting funds to accelerate efforts by potential commercial producers of Mo-99 in order to diversify the supply and move away from a single technology.
Dr. Kevin Crowley, chair of the National Research Council (NRC) committee, summarized their recommendations. The congressionally mandated report found the cost to convert from HEU to low-enriched uranium (LEU) production would result in “trivial increases in prices for typical medical isotope procedures,” especially when taking the reliability of supply into consideration. “Mo-99 supply disruptions are impacting the continuity of patient care in the United States and elsewhere,” explained Crowley, “supply reliability will continue to be a serious problem until new supply capacity is brought online.” Crowley thinks the bill provides sufficient incentives to increase domestic supplies, the temporary congressional funding the report recommended, and ample ways to sidestep the waste classification “roadblocks” the report warned against.
Mr. Roy Brown of the Council on Radionuclides and Radiopharmaceuticals (CORAR) also felt H.R. 3276 is an “important step towards reliable supply for our patients.” He touted the benefits of medical isotopes to reducing healthcare cost by streamlining diagnostic tests, catching cancer sooner, and increasing quality of life. The three hindrances are the reactor licensing, regulatory constraints, and radioactive waste disposal costs. It is unclear how the medical isotope reactors will be classified and therefore licensed, as they do not easily fit in the current research or power reactor categories. Also, the Department of Energy (DOE) requirements might lead to redundant regulatory constraints already covered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Food and Drug Administration, and others. Brown suggested that the DOE process is fully vetted and transparent, and that radioactive waste disposal charges are commercially reasonable.
Senator Murkowski asked Dr. Staples how demand will be met next year. Staples replied that it will be all about optimizing use. He showed a graph of the anticipated supply schedule for next year which was consistently well below the demand line. The U.S. will not be able to meet the demand if the Canadian reactor that recently shut down does not come back online. He explained that the shown operating schedule provides a steadily lowered supply the whole year, as preferred by medical professionals, instead of only meeting demand at the beginning of the year.
Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) commented on how vulnerable Staples’ chart makes us look. Burr then asked if the transition from HEU to LEU, and increase in domestic production necessary are achievable with H.R. 3276. Crowley replied to the affirmative, and that the bill corresponds with the NRC recommendations.
Senator Murkowski asked about the time estimates for building a new reactor in the U.S., and when was the last time the U.S. built a research reactor. Crowley said most research reactors were built in the 1960s, but was not sure which one was most recent. He also clarified that the NRC projected 9 to 13 year timeline for reactor completion is probably a conservative estimate, as the Netherlands is just finalizing a new reactor design and plans to have it up and running by 2016.
Murkowski then asked whether globally there are any privately financed medical isotope reactors. Staples answered that to his knowledge all facilities are subsidized in part by the sponsoring government. Chairman Bingaman asked what type of reactors are used for LEU production, and if accelerators could be used instead. Crowley responded that some DOE facilities, like Oakridge National Laboratory, and some universities have usable reactors. He did not recommend accelerators as they have insufficient flux capacity, so would require new accelerators to be built. Instead reactors have the necessary capacity and can be used for more than just medical isotope production.
Senator Murkowski then said to Staples, “Now I also I understand though that domestic supply does not necessarily mean domestic supplier…How can we ensure that we have a domestic supply that is not from a domestic supplier?” Staples replied that a reliable and global supply, diverse technology, and improvements to aging infrastructure would be necessary. “The reliability issue of course is key,” Murkowski responded, but continued with an analogy to oil supply. “Today we may be getting oil from Venezuela and they may be our friends and providing to us, and tomorrow they may wake up on the other side of the bed and decide they don’t want to do that.” Staples explained that the NNSA is planning on developing “4 independent technologies [to produce Mo-99], each capable of supplying up to 50 percent of the U.S. demand.” So, in theory, the tables could turn and the U.S. could become the global supplier of Mo-99 in the future.
A link to the witnesses’ testimony and a video archive of the hearing can be found here.
Committee Members Present
On July 23, 2009, the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing on “Federal Geospatial Data Management and H.R. 2489.” Chairman Jim Costa (D-CA) opened the hearing showing a Pennsylvania State University video showcasing the importance of geospatial data to our everyday lives. Costa remarked that “five years can feel like a lifetime” with respect to advances in geospatial data technology as used in every day tools such as iPhone and Google. He said that the federal government collects voluminous amounts of data, 80 percent of which is geospatial, but “it doesn’t mean we know what we’re doing.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 50 percent of the money spent on geospatial data management is redundant. Ranking Member Doug Lamborn (R-CO) stated that the federal agencies follow the method of “map many times, hoard the data.” He also expressed unhappiness with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which was invited to the hearing, but chose not to attend. He said, “OMB’s unwillingness to attend will leave us with many questions.”
Ms. Karen Siderelis of the Department of the Interior (DOI) testified to the importance of geospatial data to monitor, prepare for, and respond to national issues, including climate change, energy, national security, and the economy. She spoke about DOI providing partial funding for more than 600 state and local geospatial data projects and seed money to help states develop data initiatives. She also testified about their work on Imagery for the Nation, which is program paid for by federal funding to support the nationwide production of standardized multi-resolution products every three years. The imagery remains in the public domain for everyone to use and local entities could pay to enhance products that are specific to their needs. Siderelis testified that DOI’s three main goals in the short term are engaging the nation “in a dialog about its geospatial future,” making Imagery for the Nation “a sustainable and flexible digital imagery program that meets the needs of local, state, regional, tribal and federal agencies,” and bolstering the current geospatial governance structure.
Mr. Michael Byrne, a geospatial data officer for the State of California, called geospatial data “one of the most important technologies of our time” saying that it answers “complex questions of why and where” and will lead to better decisions at all levels of government. He spoke about geospatial management in California being a cabinet level position that serves all state agencies and recommended that a similar structure be initiated at the federal level. Byrne said geospatial data management needs to be coordinated at all levels. There should be a coordinating position above DOI, and it must be a mandated program in the government. He also recommended full funding of Imagery for the Nation.
Mr. John Palatiello of the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors testified that we have not made enough progress since establishing the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) during the Clinton Administration. The NSDI has been defined as the technologies, policies, and people necessary to promote sharing of geospatial data within all levels of government and in the private sector and academia. Palatiello said the U.S. still does not have a national geospatial strategy and we are not tying geospatial data management to national priorities. He argued that we would have seen the mortgage crisis that began in 2008 sooner if the land information system had been in place. Palatiello added that there is a lack of coordination and too much duplication within federal agencies saying, “The buck stops nowhere.”
Ms. Susan Marlow of Smart Data Strategies, Inc. also testified to the lack of interagency cooperation in geospatial data management. She said that the U.S. needs a federal property database and urged passage of H.R. 1520, the Federal Land Asset Inventory Reform Act of 2009, which would develop a multipurpose comprehensive survey of federal real property and identify inaccurate, duplicate, and out-of-date federal land inventories.
Lamborn asked the panelists, “What should Congress do to improve geospatial data management?” Palatiello suggested elevating the role of coordination from DOI to the Executive Office of the President and proposed legislation to deal with such a reorganization if necessary. Siderelis responded that they should encourage innovation, ensure collaboration with non-federal partners, and look at the NSDI as a national structure. Lamborn also asked about how they can prevent duplication and improve efficiency in the federal government’s efforts. Byrne called for coordination within all departments of the government and transparency in information technology investments. Lamborn asked Palatiello if the stimulus funds would be wasted because of duplication. Palatiello replied the government was going to waste “tens of millions” on broadband mapping even though the data is already available from the national census but cannot be used right now due to privacy laws. and in buying new equipment for the federal government which will cause job losses in the private sector since less work will be contracted out from the government. Costa asked if citizens’ privacy could be protected if the census data was released. Byrne responded that privacy could be maintained because the locations of homes would not be linked to the residents.
Niki Tsongas (D-MA) asked the panelists why the federal government lags so far behind the private sector in geospatial data management and if the federal government should try to catch up. Byrne responded that a company like Google uses federal government data and is a “presentation company” so they can be “elegant” in presenting the data to the public. He added that Google does not provide geospatial data information for policymakers. Byrne also said that a successful NSDI would have nationally recognized data, collection, information technology, human workforce, and standards components. Palatiello added that there has to be a partnership between the federal government and the private sector because “there is a role for both.” Costa asked what a successful NSDI would look like and Palatiello responded that “it would not be a static thing” because the data is changing all the time. Byrne said that the NSDI would make it possible for data to be looked at before policy decisions are made, and Siderelis added there would need to be “transparency” and it would be an assumed commodity.
John Sarbanes (D-MD) called himself a “map fiend” and asked the witnesses how optimistic they were that there would be a new level added to the geospatial mapping we currently have. Palatiello said that he was “not optimistic, but hopeful,” and Marlow said that she was “guardedly optimistic.” Sarbanes also asked if there were federal agencies that have been leaders in coordination and if they advocated partnerships with the private sector. Palatiello said that the mission of the federal agency is its first priority, not coordination with other agencies, and that partnerships with the private sector “need to start at local levels.”
Rush Holt (D-NJ) asked the witnesses for examples where geospatial data collected at the state or local levels “flowed” to the federal government. Byrne said that California has successfully provided data to the Department of Homeland Security. Siderelis said that two-thirds of the data in the national wetland layer used by the DOI Fish and Wildlife Service comes from the states because of a data sharing standard.
The second part of the hearing focused on H.R. 2489, the AmericaView Geospatial Imagery Mapping Program Act, sponsored by Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD). AmericaView is nationwide program administered through USGS and the AmericaView Consortium focused on satellite remote sensing data and technology that support research, education, workforce development, and technology transfer. Herseth Sandlin said this legislation would facilitate the ability of the federal government to use geospatial data, authorize AmericaView for five years, and ensure resources were readily available to educators, researchers, and stakeholders. Lamborn said that AmericaView was originally established by the Appropriations Committee in 2000 and this bill is a “long overdue authorization” of this program.
Dr. Suzette Kimball, acting director of the USGS, said that “DOI supports the goals” of this legislation but she does not believe further legislation is necessary to meet the goals of AmericaView. She called AmericaView a “highly successful partnership” which is now in 35 states through USGS and other agencies.
Dr. Rebecca Dodge of Midwestern State University said that H.R. 2489 will ensure the impact of AmericaView improves in each state and will promote the sharing of techniques by and within states. She also said that the cooperation between states in AmericaView “has benefited the American public.”
Ms. Mary O’Neill of South Dakota State University testified that H.R. 2489 will “enhance the quantity and quality” of the AmericaView program. She said that AmericaView is necessary because the program will look different by state so there needs to be coordination at the national level. She added this program can be used as “a conduit of remote sensing technology transfer.”
Dr. Sam Batzli, WisconsinView Director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, testified that AmericaView “bridges a gap” and makes up for infrastructure missing at the local level. He said that it works because those people involved are colleagues not competitors, it fulfills a need for creating a network of geospatial data, and provides flexibility for states within the program.
Costa asked how the responsibilities for USGS under H.R. 2489 will compare with their current responsibilities for mapping, and if there will be redundancy that will occur with this legislation. Kimball responded that USGS currently has an effective working relationship with states and an effective governing structure in place and that she anticipates this “mechanism would continue to work effectively.” She said the legislation would extend the activities of USGS and also complement current activities. Kimball added that USGS would like to see clarification in the legislation regarding its role and responsibilities under H.R. 2489.
Lamborn asked what level of appropriations the witnesses would like to see for AmericaView. Dodge responded that her assessment showed that at $5 million each state View program could participate in two or three activities called for in the legislation, at $25 million each state could do four to six activities, and at $50 million “each could do all with a high level of effort.”
Testimony from the chair, ranking member, and panelists can be found here, as well as a video archive of the entire hearing.
Committee Members Present
*Chair not present, but published an opening statement for the hearing
On July 14, 2009, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on “S. 796, Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009 and S. 140, Abandoned Mine Reclamation Act of 2009.” Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) could not be at the hearing due to the ongoing Senate work on health care reform, but Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) read his statement for him which said this is “long-awaited reform” of the 1872 mining law and “my goal is to reform and modernize the law.”
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar believes the 1872 mining law is “a law that must be changed.” He called mining “an important part of the economy” and said mining reform should focus on four goals: supporting mining on public lands, protecting the environment, addressing abandoned mines, and setting up a legal framework within which to accomplish these objectives. Salazar asserted that through mining reform they would be able to create more jobs in mining and tourism. He also stated that mining has “scarred the environment” and we have an “abandoned mine legacy that needs to be dealt with.” Salazar called for “reasonable royalties” to be enacted on mining operations on public lands that would guarantee “a fair return to the taxpayer.” The secretary highlighted the need for more environmental protection citing 40 percent of headwaters in the West near mining operations are contaminated from mining waste and often “environmental liabilities are left to the taxpayer.” He concluded his testimony saying of mining reform, “We need to get it done within this congress.”
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) touched upon the main theme of questioning at the hearing by asking Salazar, “What would your royalty reform consist of?” Secretary Salazar said the royalty level needs to be such that it does not drive out business but is fair to the taxpayer. He called for more transparency and accountability. He said, “We should aim for simplicity.”
Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) stated that it is “well past time that we enact reform,” but we need to make sure “we do not create new” problems through mining reform. She indicated her concern about security in importing foreign materials and the reduction in mining investment in the U.S. that would result from the lengthy rulemaking process after mining reform is enacted. Salazar responded that what is “most jeopardizing [to businesses] is uncertainty in 1872 reform” and he believes we need a “royalty mechanism that is simple and transparent.”
Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) asked Salazar if he supports new mines on public lands when there will be environmental degradation as a result. Salazar responded that “DOI can support turning down permits” if that is the case and he “will not allow mining operations” that cause degradation. Udall asked Salazar how S. 796 would protect water resources and Salazar answered that the bill provides “a nexus between economic development and environmental protection” so that mining can prosper while not damaging the environment. Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) commented that it is “in everyone’s best interest” to resolve mining reform and he hoped that we could “transcend polarization” that has prevented action in past years.
Mr. Jim Butler of Parsons Behle & Latimer testified about his concern over Section 302 in S. 796 on mining exploration. The reform would call for a permit to be issued before any exploration for mining occurs. Butler said this new process would cause exploration to take longer and cost more. He added that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would be “overwhelmed in paperwork.”
Mr. John Leshy of the University of California testified that S. 796 and S. 140 would “preserve and expand jobs” and said that it is “time to close the loophole” that allows mining operations on federal public lands for free. He called for the DOI to have authority to veto “bad mines” on public lands. Leshy testified that gold is one of the most important hardrock minerals mined in the U.S. and called it economically and environmentally compatible.
Ms. Robin Nazzaro of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified on GAO’s findings of how western states assess different rates of royalties on mining operations, saying they “often differ depending on land ownership and the mineral being extracted.” She also testified that using a consistent definition GAO found over 161,000 abandoned mine sites exist in western states, posing significant safety risks that need to be addressed.
Ms. Cathy Carlson of EARTHWORKS testified that our water quality is at risk from contamination from mining waste, including rivers and water in national parks. She encouraged the committee “to take up reform” and said reform “needs to address local communities” and create jobs. She recommended they ban hardrock mines that create a permanent damage to the environment.
Mr. Phillips Baker, Jr. of the National Mining Association (NMA) testified that the NMA “supports a net profit royalty” and not a gross or net smelter return (NSR) royalty, which he contended “would close” mines. He said NMA “cannot give its full support” to the mining reform bills that have been proposed because they would result in a greater dependence on foreign materials and would cause “regulatory uncertainty” that would harm U.S. mining competitiveness with its foreign counterparts.
Udall asked the panel, “Is there a need for Good Samaritan permits?” These permits would be to clean-up abandoned mines, which are abundant especially in western states. Butler indicated that “companies are discouraged” from setting up mining operations on land with abandoned mines because of the “liabilities for clean up” they may face. Udall then asked Leshy if he believed uranium should be treated as hardrock and Leshy responded that he did not think it should be.
Risch asked Nazzaro if the current administration favors gross or net royalties in mining reform. She responded that she is not aware if they favor either, but the GAO has just laid out the options and the best solution will depend on the rate of royalty enacted, as well as a combination of the choice of royalties is chosen. She also added that the more deductions they allow in the new reform the more complex the royalty process will be. Baker added that in his opinion the Alaska and Nevada models of royalties work. Leshy also responded that an “important issue” will be if Congress decides to enact royalties only on new mines and exempt existing mines, or if they will impose royalties on all mines. He said exempting existing mines will create “a hole in the revenue stream” generated from federal royalties.
Testimony from the panelists as well as a video of the hearing can be found here.
Committee Members Present
*Ranking Member of full committee, not present but published an opening statement for the hearing
On June 25, 2009, the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing on “The Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining on Water Quality in Appalachia.” Chairman Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) called the hearing on mountaintop mining because “the impact of this type of activity is dramatic” and there is a “public health concern” associated with this practice. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) recognized that “coal is an essential part of our energy future,” but “it is not necessary to ruin our mountains” to use coal.
Mr. John “Randy” Pomponio testified on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that streams from valley filled as a result of surface mining “impairs the use of the streams and ultimately leads to listing of these streams as ‘impaired water bodies’ in EPA’s water quality reports.” Surface coal mining represents 40 to 45 percent of coal mining in Central Appalachia and is of important concern for the environment. He added that recent studies have shown that streams from past and current mining can experience “long-lasting impairments to aquatic biota.” Often elevated levels of selenium are found in streams that exceed state and federal acceptable levels. Surface mining also kills forests, ecosystems, and habitats and results in a loss of “water quality and ecological services.” Pomponio said the most important part of considering future mines is treating the streams and rivers as a watershed and considering the cumulative impacts mining will have on the system. He also testified about EPA’s responsibility under the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to protect the nation’s water from harm and to develop tools to allow coal mining to occur in the least destructive manner to the environment.
Senator Cardin asked Pomponio about the cumulative impact on forests and streams due to mountaintop mining. Pomponio said there was “an integral relationship” between the two and cited the importance of streams, comparing them to “capillaries in your bloodstream.” Cardin also asked, “Is there an adequate remedial program for destroyed forests?” Pomponio responded that it is uncertain and “we don’t know where technology will take us” in the future. He added “we know the value of forests,” but “runoff issues are much more complicated.”
Mr. Paul Sloan from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation testified about how they regulate coal mining in Tennessee to protect the environment and the “ongoing safety and health risk” associated with mountaintop mining. He also testified about the importance of protecting our waters saying, “Waters of the state are a public trust.” He added that Tennessee supports the Appalachia Restoration Act and that “responsible mining is possible.” Sloan recommended clarification on protection of head waters, which are crucial for environmental protection, in light of recent Supreme Court decisions that have left application of the Clean Water Act on headwaters and wetlands unclear. He supports passage of the Clean Water Restoration Act (S. 787) and “its goal of restoring the approach used by EPA and the Corps of Engineers for many years prior to those decisions.” He urged passage of the Appalachia Restoration Act (S. 696) for consistency in coal mining to protect the nation’s headwater streams.
Mr. Randy Huffman of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection testified that EPA is “wrongly claiming that West Virginia is not upholding its own rules” in protecting water resources from effects of coal mining. He testified that “West Virginia wants to protect its water resources” and is concerned that more regulations from EPA will “limit all types of mining.” Huffman added that mountaintop mining is already covered under regulations of surface mining and when considering protecting the environment the discussion cannot be limited to surface mining. He also expressed concern about EPA’s change in position on eliminating valley fills saying it will cause all underground mining to end, and an end to mining in Appalachia would “be felt in the world’s energy markets.” Huffman emphasized the importance of coal to the economy saying that “West Virginia and the nation need jobs and coal.”
Cardin asked Huffman, “What can you do on this headwater issue?” Huffman responded that they have reduced the size of valley fills, but there has been an “unintended consequence” of an increasing number of smaller valleys being filled with mining waste. He added that more “research dollars need to be invested” to determine how to better handle this problem.
Ms. Maria Gunnoe of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition testified to the environmental harms impacting the area in West Virginia where she has lived for her entire life. She testified that mountaintop mining “causes catastrophic flooding” in the valleys and can also impact the health of residents because “what it does to our air quality is horrible.” Gunnoe talked about there being 150,000 coal-mining jobs in the state in 1950 and today that number is down to less than 15,000. She emphasized that number could decrease further because there will be “no economic desire” to invest in mining in the state “if people can’t live there” due to the deteriorating health conditions. Gunnoe called mountaintop mining a “human rights issue” because her right to clean water is being taken away and “the water will never be again what it once was.”
Dr. Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science testified to the “irrefutable scientific effects” of mountaintop mining on the environment, saying that it contributes to pollution leading to contaminants being stored in sediments of streambeds and the impacts of valley fills are “immense and irreversible.” She testified to the loss of Mayflies in Appalachia which “tells us something is wrong.” Palmer added that mitigation efforts to reduce the impact of the mining are working, saying “there is no evidence to date that mitigation actions can compensate for the lost natural resources and ecological functions of the headwater streams that are destroyed.” The method of stream creation will not act in the same way as a natural stream and will not be able to support an active aquatic community. She stated that when considering manmade streams it is “unacceptable to say the stream is ecologically healthy.”
Cardin wanted to know more about this issue of remediation programs for mitigation and Palmer responded that there is “no scientific evidence” it can be done. In addition high levels of contamination remain for a long time even after mining stops. She said that stream creation “fundamentally alters hydrology” leading to larger discharge from the valley fill.
Senator Alexander asked Sloan if under current federal law it is possible for excess waste from coal mining to be dumped into rivers in Tennessee. Sloan responded that “we would not certify valley fills” under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. He added that “consistency” in federal laws on this issue is “at a premium” and “we don’t have that today.” Currently, the Clean Water Act will exempt discharge of material into U.S. waters from permitting unless all of three conditions were true: a discharge was made into U.S. navigable waters, the purpose of the project brought the area into a use to which it was not previously subject, and there is impairment or reduction of navigable waters. Alexander also wanted to know Sloan’s opinion on the importance of maintaining natural beauty and the parks in Tennessee as a way to increase family incomes due to added jobs and economic growth from tourism to the current state administration. Sloan said that with over 600,000 acres of public lands “the value is held very highly with this administration and within the entire state.”
Testimony from the panelists as well as a video of the hearing can be found here.
Sources: Hearing testimony.
Contributed by Corina Cerovski-Darriau, Government Affairs Program staff; and Stephanie Praus, 2009 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on October 1, 2010