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Heinrich Introduces Legislation To Modernize Antiquated Mining Law

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act, legislation to modernize the nation’s severely antiquated hardrock mining law.

“Unlike other 19th century western settlement laws, which have long since been reformed or replaced, the Mining Act of 1872 is still on the books. This law drew thousands of people to the West to earn a living, including my father and my grandfather who worked in hardrock mining. But shortsighted policy also left behind a scarred legacy on our lands and water,” said Heinrich. “The Mining Act of 1872 has been on the books for 40 years longer than New Mexico has been a state. This antiquated law has become a driving force behind centuries of legacy mining pollution that is leaking toxic heavy metals and acid mine drainage into streams and rivers all across the West. Unlike the way we manage other publicly-owned natural resources like coal and oil, we don't collect any royalties on hardrock minerals to return fair value to taxpayers. We also don't have a reclamation fee to help with cleanup work, and we lack a clear process to protect the types of places that simply aren’t appropriate for mineral development. It's long past time to change that.”

Regulation of hardrock mineral extraction in the United States has remained virtually unchanged for 150 years, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the General Mining Act of 1872 into law. This antiquated system has allowed mining companies to extract more than $300 billion worth of gold, silver, copper, and other valuable minerals from U.S. public lands without paying a cent in federal royalties to the American people. These same companies have left the public with billions of dollars in cleanup costs for abandoned hardrock mines, which have polluted 40% of the headwaters of western watersheds. Many Indigenous communities’ sacred sites and lands are continuously at-risk of being permanently destroyed by mining. 

With a growing demand for the critical minerals necessary for a clean energy transition, the need to reform the existing mining law is particularly salient. Modernizing our leasing system would address major environmental justice concerns, protect our public lands, and ensure a fair return for American taxpayers.

The Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act would amend the 1872 General Mining Law to eliminate patenting of federal lands, impose a federal minerals royalty, establish a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund for the cleanup of abandoned mines, and require a review of certain lands within three years to determine if they should be available for future mining. Specifically, the bill would:

  • Require annual rental payments for claimed public land, thereby treating mine operators as other public land users.
  • Set a royalty rate of not less than 5% and not greater than 8% based on the gross income of production on federal land but would not apply to mining operations already in commercial production or those with an approved plan of operations.
  • Revenues would be deposited into a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund for abandoned mine cleanup. Additionally, the Fund would be infused by an abandoned mine reclamation fee of 1% to 3%.
  • Allow the Secretary of the Interior to grant royalty relief to mining operations based on economic factors.
  • Require an exploration permit and mining operations permit for non-casual mining operations on federal land, which would be valid for 30 years and continue as long as commercial production occurs.
  • Permit states, political subdivisions, and Tribes to petition the Secretary of the Interior to have lands withdrawn from mining.
  • Require an expedited review of areas that may be inappropriate for mining, and allow specific areas be reviewed for possible withdrawal.

Original cosponsors of Senator Heinrich’s Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act include U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.). 

U.S. Representative Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, introduced similar legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Original cosponsors include Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Chair Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and U.S. Representatives Don Beyer (D-Va.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rashida Talib (D-Mich.). 

“Minerals like copper and lithium are essential for our clean energy future, but that doesn’t mean we should sacrifice our environment, health, and sacred or special places just to get them,” said Grijalva. “Our current mining law was put in place before we even knew what a car was, much less an electric one. By keeping this outdated system going, we’re telling mining companies it’s okay to wreak total havoc on our environment and then leave American taxpayers to foot the cleanup bill. Modernizing this relic of a law isn’t extreme or anti-industry—it’s just common sense.”

Seventy environmental, conservation, and Tribal rights’ organizations sent a letter supporting the mining reform legislation. The letter is available here. Trout Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers also support the bill.

“We thank Senator Heinrich for recognizing the need to reform America’s outdated 150-year-old mining law. It makes no sense to accelerate domestic critical minerals production before repairing the rotten foundation of the Mining Law,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “It has long been clear: Land managers need to have the authority to say “no” to a mine that is proposed in the wrong place, and we need funding to clean up abandoned mines polluting thousands of rivers and streams across the West.”

“It’s time we took our mining laws out of the 19th century and into the 21st century. Our public lands, waters, wildlife, and way of life depend on it,” said David Willms, senior director of Western wildlife and conservation at the National Wildlife Federation. “We applaud Sen. Heinrich for this common-sense legislation to reform the antiquated 1872 mining law and invest in our public lands, while also ensuring that the public receives fair compensation for the use of our public lands.”

“For decades, mining companies have capitalized on our public lands without paying royalties and left behind toxic pollution, thanks in large part to outdated mining laws from 150 years ago,” said Athan Manuel, Director of the Sierra Club's Lands Protection Program. “As we make the transition to clean energy, we cannot continue these extractive, unsustainable processes that put profits over people. It's time to pass the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act to bring our mining laws out of the 19th century, put an end to subsidizing mining operations, and protect our communities and treasured places.”

“For over 150 years, mining operations have been governed by an antiquated and racist law that contains no environmental or community protections” said League of Conservation Voters Conservation Program Director Alex Taurel.“As we increase our focus on mining the raw materials needed to secure a clean energy future independent of petro-state autocrats, we must root our efforts in justice for the communities that have long been disproportionately harmed by colonization and resource extraction, particularly Indigenous communities. This bill will give land managers the ability to defend our public lands from irresponsible mining, provide taxpayers with a fair return, and allocate funds to address the long-standing hazards of abandoned mines to drinking water and fish and wildlife habitat. We thank Chair Grijalva and Sen. Heinrich for their leadership and urge Congress to act so that we may begin to fix the mining industry’s toxic legacy.” 

“For 150 years mining companies have extracted our country’s mineral resources, failed to adequately compensate taxpayers, left behind toxic sites that poisoned local communities, and destroyed sacred Indigenous lands and environmental treasures without consequence,” said Earthjustice Senior Legislative Representative Blaine Miller-McFeeley.“While we understand that mining is an important component in transitioning us to a clean energy future, it must proceed in the most sustainable way possible with strong environmental protections, robust community engagement, and meaningful tribal consultation. Thank you Chair Grijalva and Senator Heinrich for recognizing the need to update our mining laws to the twenty-first century and protect the people and special places that need it the most.” 

“Hunters and anglers have long-advocated for legislation to modernize the General Mining Act of 1872” said John Gale, Conservation Director of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “The world has changed a lot in the last 150 years and hardrock mining's image of the one-man operation with a mule and a pick ax is a far cry from the multinational corporations systematically extracting minerals from our lands and waters today. We also acknowledge that establishing parity with other extractive industries that pay royalties and have greater regulatory safeguards in place for protecting natural resources is central to the conversation and important as taxpayers look to congressional leaders for establishing new revenue streams to support better management of our public lands and waters. It well past time for us to do more for our water resources and improve habitat for fish and wildlife while generating new jobs and establishing higher standards for the stewardship of our natural resources.”

"For far too long, antiquated and racist hardrock mining law has governed mining operations in the United States. In the past 150 years, frontline communities endured discrimination, injustice, and prejudice to receive basic needs like clean drinking water, all for mining operations to produce high yields." said Mark Magana Founding CEO of GreenLatinos. "It's time we address this issue and use our public lands in a way that acknowledges the histories and traditions of those historically and deliberately overlooked communities. By giving land managers the ability to balance mining with other uses of public lands, The Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act of 2022 is a bill that would defend local communities and wild places from irresponsible mining."

“This is important legislation that would protect public lands and end government handouts to mining companies,” said Hans Cole, head of Environmental Activism at Patagonia. “Pollution from mining endangers air, water and wildlife habitats, and this bill would prioritize the health of people and the planet.”

“Outdoor Alliance applauds Congressman Grijalva and Senator Heinrich for introducing the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act of 2022. By updating America’s antiquated 150-year-old mining law, this bill would make needed reforms to prevent toxic pollution and finally put hard rock mining on an equal playing field with other uses of public lands including outdoor recreation. As our nation transitions to renewable energy sources, this bill would ensure that future mining projects are planned, permitted, and reclaimed appropriately, while providing a fairer return for taxpayers,” said Adam Cramer, CEO, Outdoor Alliance.

The full text of Senator Heinrich’s Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act is available here. A fact sheet can be found here.