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Brief # 104 Environment

The Trump Administration’s Last Push to Open Land to Energy and Mining Companies

By Jacob Morton

January 4, 2021

Policy

As the Trump administration’s single term nears its end, top agency officials are attempting a last-minute push to approve a flush of large-scale energy and mining projects for companies hoping to secure contracts to extract various natural resources.

In Arizona, the U.S. Forest Service announced a new release date for the final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Resolution Copper Mine project in the Tonto National Forest, east of Superior, Arizona. The original release date was set for some time in 2021 or 2022. The Forest Service has moved that date to the end of this year, December 31, 2020. Conservationists and tribal communities have opposed the 2,422-acre mining project for years, citing the destruction of the Oak Flat Campground above the ore deposit and harm to its Emory Oak trees, sacred to the neighboring San Carlos Apache Tribe. Apache communities still harvest acorns from the Emory Oaks.

In Utah, the Bureau of Land Management has attempted to approve a helium mining project in the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness of southwest Utah. In 2018, Congress passed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act (the Dingell Act), “an enormous package of conservation-focused bills,” to protect the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness from any new energy developments. Despite the move by Congress to protect Labyrinth Canyon, the Bureau of Land Management moved quickly to issue a lease of a 1,410-acre parcel within the soon to be wilderness area to the Twin Bridges mining company. Because the lease was issued in December 2018, before the President officially signed the Dingell Act into law on March 12, 2019, Twin Bridges has maintained the right to develop the lease if the proposed project is approved by the BLM.

The 55,000-acre Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness area “borders the Green River and includes the iconic Bowknot Bend—a deep, red rock river canyon where the river turns 180 degrees and forms a deep, colorful U in the landscape.” Final approval for the helium fracking project was expected to be approved just before Christmas on December 23. However, federal district court Judge Rudolph Contreras of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia pushed back the approval date until at least January 6, 2021. Local communities and tribes in the Labyrinth Canyon region have fought for permanent protection of the wilderness area for at least 20 years.

In Nevada, the Interior Department has fast-tracked the permitting process for a new 5,500 acre open-pit lithium mine on federal lands. If approved, the mine planned by Canada-based mining company Lithium Americas, would be one of the world’s largest lithium mines. The project was first listed in July 2020 and final approval for the project is expected in early January 2021, meaning construction could start very soon.

In Virginia and West Virginia, the Forest Service and BLM are reviewing the environmental impact statement with expectations to approve construction and operation of “a buried 42-inch natural gas pipeline across approximately 3.5 miles of the Jefferson National Forest.” Drawing from the same Marcellus and Utica oil shale as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), proposed by Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC., would extend in total 303.5 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina. A 3.5-mile section of the pipeline would cut across the Jefferson National Forest and burrow beneath the Appalachian Trail. If completed, the pipeline could deliver up to two million dekatherms of natural gas energy per day to the South.

In South Dakota, the Environmental Protection Agency has given its final approval for the construction of a new uranium mine called the Dewey-Burdock project. The mine would extend over 12,613 acres near the Black Hills National Forest region in western South Dakota. Azarga Uranium Corporation, The Canada-based organization backing the project, plans to inject the chemical Lixiviant “into more than 1,461 wells, sending the chemical into the underground water supply. The chemical would cause uranium trapped in sandstone below the surface to leach into the aquifer, contaminating the water but allowing the uranium to be captured, extracted and transformed into so-called yellow cake that can be used to fuel nuclear power plants.” The mine could produce up to one million pounds of uranium a year, much more than all current uranium mines in the country combined, however, the country’s uranium mines are already sitting at excess capacity.

The list of proposed projects goes on. With less than a month until the end of President Trump’s single term, the push by his administration to approve energy and mining projects has only accelerated.

Analysis

Donald Trump and top appointed officials such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have long sought to increase domestic production of fossil energy and key minerals such as copper, uranium, and lithium. Commerce Secretary Ross was a steel industry investor before serving under the Trump administration. Ross has pushed for approval of the Resolution Copper Mine in Arizona, meeting with Rio Tinto Mineral Corporation, the mine’s parent company, at least three times this past year. Andrew Wheeler, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency was an energy lobbyist before joining the Trump administration, lobbying for an electricity utility, a uranium producer, and a coal magnate. David Bernhardt, Secretary of the Department of Interior (DOI), was a former oil and mining lobbyist.

These latest projects all reflect a larger push by the Trump administration’s Interior Department and the Forest Service to increase the country’s domestic mineral and energy production. Supporters of the projects and agency officials, such as Richard Packer, a spokesperson for the DOI, says, “Our science-based decisions are legally compliant and based on an extensive process involving input from career subject matter experts and the public.” Packer adds that the DOI “continues to balance safe and responsible natural resource development with conservation of important surface resources.”

Statements from private industry involved in the latest projects largely mirror that of David Wallace, an executive at Twin Bridges, the mining company hoping to frack for helium in Utah. Wallace says, “We also love these lands and are committed to our project enhancing, and not detracting from them.” He also points out, “the project could ultimately generate hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of royalty and tax payments to federal, state and local governments.”

Environmentalists, conservation organizations, and tribal communities are skeptical. In South Dakota, the site of the proposed Dewey-Burdock uranium mine is located adjacent to the Oglala Lakota Nation’s 2.8-million-acre reservation. The Sioux tribe claims the land the mine would be built on was illegally taken by the United States and has sued to block the project. Kyle White, a Lakota Tribe member, and the former director of its natural resources regulatory agency, says, “The voice of Indigenous people needs to be heard — and federal Indian policy has made us invisible and dehumanized us.”

Meanwhile, in Arizona, camped out in protest at the site for the proposed Resolution Copper Mine, San Carlos Apache Tribal Leader, Wendsler Nosie Sr. says, “This is a disaster. As far as I am concerned, this is an invasion by a foreign power. We cannot afford to lose our identity and our history. Imagine if the biblical Mount Sinai became a location for mining and it caved in and disappeared. You would not stand by and watch.”

Resolution Copper Company’s own website admits the surface of the mine site will sink 700 – 1,000 feet over 40 years of mining. According to Federal reports, “The project would create 3,700 jobs and supply as much as one billion pounds of copper per year, a quarter of the current annual demand in the United States.” The San Carlos Apache Tribe commissioned its own impact study for the proposed mine and submitted it to the Forest Service when the agency’s original draft environmental impact statement for the mine was released. According to the tribe’s study, the total number of local jobs created by the mine would be only 10% of the total mining jobs in the four counties the Forest Service surveyed, and only 0.5% of the total number of jobs in those counties. The study also showed a substantial loss in revenues to Pinal County’s tourism industry.

In Virginia, Laura Belleville, Vice President of Conservation & Trail Programs for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, says of the proposed natural gas pipeline, “The Mountain Valley Pipeline [would] carry fracked natural gas for over 300 miles through the Virginia and West Virginia countryside, crossing over dozens of water sources, through protected areas and breaching the [Appalachian Trail] corridor. The pipeline would run parallel to the Trail for over 90 miles and carve ugly gashes in the landscape that could be seen from 20 miles away.”

In Nevada, The BLM’s environmental assessment for Lithium America’s proposed lithium mine admits, “the project will cause harm, including to the habitat of a threatened bird species known as sage grouse.” The birds’ sagebrush habitat could take several decades to recover and for “pre-disturbance sagebrush vegetation community characteristics to return.” Local ranchers and residents also fear surface disturbances from the mine upland of them will cause local springs to dry up both within and outside of the Project area, as well as result in “increased surface flows” in other areas “contributing sediment and debris into riparian areas and wetlands.”

In most cases, when private industry and agency officials have been pressed whether these projects are being rushed for approval before President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s inauguration date, request for comment is denied. However, project manager for Resolution Copper Company, Andrew Lye says of the proposed Arizona mine, “It is not being fast-tracked and Resolution Copper has not sought to apply for programs that are available to expedite projects.”

Randy Serraglio, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, thinks otherwise. Serraglio points out that shortening the timeline for the Final environmental impact statement for the proposed copper mine seems premature because the Draft environmental impact statement was not even complete, omitting key details such as, “the site where the tailings will be stored and where the company would locate the pipeline and the power lines to make that work.” Serraglio notes that “the same type of pressure and influence have been applied at the highest levels of the Trump administration for other such projects.” He says, “It seems clear they want to get it out while Trump is still president. It’s not clear whether they’ll be able to do that or not or whether they can do it legally.”

Resistance Resources

Natural Resources Defense Council

  • NRDC works to safeguard the earth, its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. nrdc.org

Appalachian Mountain Advocates

  • A non-profit public interest law and policy organization dedicated to fighting for clean water and a clean energy future. They work to advocate for a sustainable energy economy, fighting further investment in fossil fuels and forcing polluters to pay the costs of cleaning up the messes they have already made. appalmad.org

Environmental Defense Fund

  • For more than 50 years we have been pioneers, using science and different perspectives to make the environment safer and healthier for us all. Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org)

Sources Cited (Learn More)

Axelrod, J. (2020, December 23). Judge Halts Action on Utah Helium Drilling. Retrieved January 01, 2021, from https://www.nrdc.org/experts/josh-axelrod/judge-halts-permitting-utah-helium-mining

Krol, D. (2020, December 11). Did feds fast-track Resolution Copper mine project in Trump’s last days? Foes say ‘yes’. Retrieved January 01, 2021, from https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2020/12/11/resolution-copper-may-fast-track-trumps-final-days/5981085002/

Lipton, E. (2020, December 19). In Last Rush, Trump Grants Mining and Energy Firms Access to Public Lands. Retrieved January 01, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/us/politics/in-last-rush-trump-grants-mining-and-energy-firms-access-to-public-lands.html

Mountain Valley Pipeline Project. (2020). Overview. Retrieved January 01, 2021, from https://www.mountainvalleypipeline.info/

Resolution Copper. (2020). Subsidence. Retrieved January 01, 2021, from https://www.resolutioncopper.com/subsidence.html

United States, US Department of Interior, US Bureau of Land Management. (2020, December 4). Retrieved January 1, 2021, from https://int.nyt.com/data/documenttools/thacker-pass-feis-chapters1-6-508/f5d9956ac05f6601/full.pdf#page=78

USDA Forest Service. (2019, August). Draft Environmental Impact Statement: Resolution Copper Project and Land Exchange. Retrieved January 01, 2021, from https://www.resolutionmineeis.us/sites/default/files/deis/resolution-deis-vol-1.pdf

USDI Bureau of Land Management, & US Forest Service. (2020, December). Mountain Valley Pipeline and Equitrans Expansion Project: Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Retrieved January 01, 2021, from https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd863227.pdf

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