White House Releases Plan to Ease Mining Rules

(Adella Harding/The Daily Free Press via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration announced its strategy to bolster U.S. mineral mining operations, calling for quicker permit processes and greater private sector access to public lands.

Amid escalating trade tensions between the U.S. and China, the White House says it will reduce American reliance on Chinese rare earths exports by making it easier for new mines to open and for mining companies to obtain permits on U.S. soil.

Over 60 recommendations for federal agencies were included in the plan released Tuesday, which the government says will strengthen U.S. defense and the economy. 

“The United States is heavily dependent on foreign sources of critical minerals and on foreign supply chains resulting in the potential for strategic vulnerabilities to both our economy and military,” the Commerce Department said in the report.

Last year, following an executive order from President Donald Trump, the Interior Department led by then-Secretary Ryan Zinke identified 35 minerals as critical minerals, including tin, potash, uranium, cobalt and many other elements that are used for developing electronics.

The strategy rolled out by the Commerce Department on Tuesday directs the Interior Department, now led by Secretary David Bernhardt, to locate domestic supplies of these minerals and expedite permitting for such projects.

Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate, is instructed to revisit its permitting and land classifications, as well as its management plans. The report says this review could reduce permitting delays and increase access to critical minerals.

The plan also urges the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to do the same, potentially lessening the time it takes to obtain a permit to mine below U.S. waters. The International Seabed Authority has issued permits for 29 contractors as of 2018, the report says, but none of them are U.S. companies.

Interior Secretary Bernhardt said in a statement that the strategy “lays out a blueprint for America to once again be a leader in the critical minerals sector.”

“As with our energy security, the Trump administration is dedicated to ensuring that we are never held hostage to foreign powers for the natural resources critical to our national security and economic growth,” he said.

The White House also called for mineral mining efforts to be treated as critical infrastructure projects, meaning federal agencies would have to quickly prepare an environmental impact statement and speed up permitting.

But Congressman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a statement that the Trump administration “has set shameful new records for industry giveaways, and this is one of the worst.”

“Unchecked mining is already damaging inhabited areas around the Grand Canyon and other sites around the country, and we can expect much more severe impacts to public lands nationwide if these recommendations go into effect,” said Grijalva, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.

Grijalva spoke during a conference on Tuesday in support of the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act, which would create a permanent ban on new uranium mining on about 1 million acres north and south of the Grand Canyon.

On Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands held a legislative hearing on that bill and another measure to protect New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park from the effects of potential drilling projects.

Interior Secretary Bernhardt visited Chaco Culture National Historical Park last week and agreed to defer oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius of the site for at least a year.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Republican committee member Paul Gosar of Arizona said the effort to ban mining in the area is an “anti-mining and anti-American attack,” sharing the Trump administration’s concern that the U.S. is too dependent on foreign minerals.   

Coral Evans, mayor of Flagstaff, Arizona, testified Wednesday alongside leaders of the Navajo, Pueblo and Havasupai tribes in support of the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act.

“The history of uranium in northern Arizona is one of destruction and waste. It is estimated that there are nearly 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo reservation alone,” Evans said.

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