Mining, Mapping, Soils and Other Surface/Subsurface Issues (1/28/13)

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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.

In the 111th and 112th Congresses, federal mining policy was dominated by concerns over shortages of rare earth elements (REE’s). The Senate and the House introduced bills to jump start a dormant U.S. industry as the Chinese began to restrict exports, but none of these bills reached the President’s desk.

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.

Some of AGI's member societies have issued their own position statements on public lands and land use issues.

Recent Action

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Previous Action

House Natural Resources Committee Marks Up Mineral and Energy Bills (05/12)
On May 16, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a full committee mark up to vote on the Soda Ash Royalty Extension, Job Creation, and Export Enhancement Act of 2011 (H.R. 1192), the Native American Energy Act (H.R. 3973), the Planning for American Energy Act of 2012 (H.R. 4381), the Providing Leasing Certainty for American Energy Act of 2012 (H.R. 4382), the Streamlining Permitting of American Energy Act of 2012 (H.R. 4383), and the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2012 (H.R. 4402). All six bills were passed by the committee. 

H.R. 1192 would extend the current reduced royalty rate of 2 percent for the development of soda ash through October, 2016. An amendment offered by Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) to require the Secretary of the Interior to show that the reduced royalty rate will result in increased production of soda ash and increase employment was not agreed to. 

H.R. 3973, offered by Representative Don Young (R-AK), contains many provisions meant to reduce federal regulations of energy production on Indian lands. It would amend the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (P.L. 91-190) to only allow the affected Indian tribe to comment on the environmental impact statements of federal actions on Indian lands and would eliminate any fees for oil and gas inspection activities and leasing for non-producing acreage on Indian land. The bill would create five Indian Energy Development Offices within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to carry out Indian energy resource development programs. An amendment to exempt Indian lands from any hydraulic fracturing rules developed by the Department of the Interior (DOI) was agreed to. 

H.R. 4381, introduced by Representative Scott Tipton (R-CO), would require DOI to complete a Strategic Federal Onshore Energy Production Strategy every four years for an “all of the above” energy production plan on lands held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service. The bill was agreed to by a roll call vote. 

Introduced by Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO), H.R. 4382 would require the Secretary of the Interior to offer as part of a lease sale “no less than 25 percent of the annual nominated acreage not previously made available for lease.”  H.R. 4383, introduced by Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO), would require DOI to permit or deny an application for drilling within 30 days of submission and would establish Federal Permit Streamlining Projects in every Bureau of Land Management (BLM) field office. Both bills were passed by the committee by a roll call vote. 

H.R. 4402, introduced by Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV) would characterize all mines that “will provide strategic and critical minerals” to be considered an “infrastructure project” as defined by an Executive Order (EO) issued in March 2012. In the EO, all infrastructure projects deemed regionally and nationally significant will be reviewed by a Steering Committee of multiple federal agencies in an effort to reduce the amount of time it takes to make permitting decisions. The bill would designate the federal agency responsible for issuing a mineral exploration or mine permit as the lead agency and require that agency to coordinate and consult with other permitting agencies to minimize permitting delays. A failed amendment offered by Tonko would have redefined the bill’s definition of “strategic and critical minerals” from any mineral necessary for national defense, energy infrastructure, domestic manufacturing, and economic security to the lanthanides group, yttrium, scandium, and “any other mineral that is critical based on the impact of a potential supply restriction and the likelihood of a supply restriction.” The bill was passed by the committee on a roll call vote.

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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. Since 1872, the law 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.

There has been talk of reforming the 1872 act since 1935, and Congress attempted to reform the General Mining Law in the 111th with House and Senate versions of the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009 (H.R. 699 and S. 796). The House measure would have allowed for various royalties and wilderness sanctuaries; enacted regulations to prevent degradation of public lands; and permitted petitions to withdraw specific federal land from possible mining. Senator Jeff Bingaman’s bill proposed to 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. Neither bill made it out of committee. Again in the 112th, Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) and House Democrats from the Committee on Natural Resources introduced legislation to assess royalties and additional fees on hard rock mining.  The bill would have also increased fees on oil and gas production.

The 111th Congress looked at legislation to amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 for abandoned mine clean-up, but none reached the floor for debate. The 1977 act established a fund to collect money to give to states to clean up abandoned coal mines, but some states use the funds to clean up abandoned hard rock mines such as uranium, gold and copper. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed S. 2830, a bill introduced by Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) that would clarify the rights of states and tribes to use the money for reclamation of non-coal mines.

In the 111th Congress, federal mining policy was dominated by concerns over shortages of rare earth elements (REE’s). The Senate and the House introduced bills to jump start a dormant U.S. industry during a Chinese export ban, but none of these bills reached the President’s desk (S. 4031; H.R. 6160; S.3521). In the 112th Congress, numerous critical minerals bills were introduced in the Senate and House, but all failed to pass both houses.  The most successful of these was the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2012 (H.R.4402) which the House passed in July 2012.

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 (Public Law 105-36), 1999 (Public Law 106-148) and 2009 (Public Law 111-11) with consistent increases as well as some amendments.

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.
President Obama signed the Public Lands Omnibus legislation package in March 2009 (Public Law 111-11). The omnibus contains more than 160 bills authorizing conservation measures related to public lands, water and resources and programs to address ocean research, water and climate change, fossils on public lands and geologic mapping. It includes the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Reauthorization Act, which provides funding ($64 million per year over ten years) 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.

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

The U.S. Geological Survey launched their digital National Atlas of the United States of America in July 2012, providing comprehensive and easily accessible maps. In August and September 2012, the U.S. and Canada completed a joint mapping of the continental shelf to determine the boundary between the countries with regard to the Law of the Sea Treaty.

In July 2012, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21, P.L.112-141) became law, creating a Technical Mapping Advisory Committee to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency with providing flood maps and improving mapping standards. The controversial Map it Once, Use it Many Times Act (H.R. 4233) failed. 

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 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.

President Obama signed the Public Lands Omnibus in March 2009 (Public Law 111-11). Beyond expanding national parks and protecting 2 million acres of federal lands, the law contains many programs to address ocean research, water and climate change, fossils on public lands, and geologic mapping.

In March 2012, the U.S. Forest Service released their final planning rule as required by the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976 (16 U.S.C. 1604). The planning rule focuses on narrow and broad level monitoring, creating a system by which land managers can better document changing conditions and the effectiveness of management strategies. The National Park Service published its “Director’s Call to Action,” a 100-year Anniversary Action Plan as the agency nears its 100-year anniversary in 2016.

Legislation regarding the Federal Helium Reserve was introduced by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and John Barrasso (R-WY) but did not leave the committee.  The Helium Stewardship Act of 2012 (S. 2374) aimed to better regulate the lowering of the Federal Helium Reserve.

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.

Included in the Public Lands Omnibus and passed in March 2009 is the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act. It prevents taking fossils from public land without a permit but has an amendment allowing casual, or unknowing, collecting of common fossils.

Contributed by Wilson Bonner, Geoscience Policy staff; Kimberley Corwin 2013 AAPG/AGI Spring Intern

Background section includes material from AGI's summaries and updates for Mining in the 112th Congress.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Geoscience Policy.

Last updated on January 28, 2013