U.S. Miners face mining law reform, more regulation and a big fistfight in new Congress

U.S. Miners face mining law reform, more regulation and a big fistfight in new Congress

With Democrats in control of the Congress, the U.S. mining industry can anticipate the resurrection of mining law reform, more environmental and safety regulation, and a ”big fistfight” in the next two years over climate change issues.

Meanwhile, government regulators warned, agency budgets to support and promote mining and exploration activity could shrink even further.

In a recent presentation to the Northwest Mining Association Convention in Reno, Dan Gerkin, Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, National Mining Association (NMA), noted that gubernatorial election results also point to a political demographic shifting in traditionally pro-resources western states. Democrats won five of the eight non-coastal governorships in the West, he explained.

”Clearly environmental issues are going to be a priority in the new Congress,” according to Gerkin. Of the 29 Republicans who lost their House seats, ”18 had a (pro-) NMA voting record of 80% or better.” Nevertheless, Gerkin noted that nine of the new democratic freshmen in the House have joined the conservative Blue Dog Democrats Coalition. He suggested that the Blue Dogs could combine with Republicans to achieve a working majority of House votes on certain issues.

However, Gerkin stressed ”the odds are stacked against us in the House leadership.” For instance, House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi is not a friend of mining. House Resources Committee Chairman-designate Nick Joe Rahall, D-West Virginia, is a long-time foe of domestic hardrock mining.

Gerkin said Resource Committee’s Democratic Staff Director Jim Zoia has informed NMA that ”mining law is clearly once of their priorities.” Among the changes being advocated by Rahall and Zoia are making the moratorium on mine patenting permanent, imposing an 8% net smelter royalty, and a provision declaring designated areas as unsuitable for hardrock mining.

Meanwhile, Gerkin warned that a ”big fistfight” over climate change will take place in the next two years as Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, Chairman-designated of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, take the lead on global warming mitigation legislation. Senators Jeff Bingham, D-New Mexico, Chairman-designate of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Barbara Boxer, D-California, Chairman-designate of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, will champion caps on carbon emissions, according to Gerkin.

Gerkin said mining companies should expect increased ”oversight all over the place” as current mining regulatory program will come under additional congressional review. He also forecast that House Labor and the Economy Chairman-designate George Miller, D-California, will push for increased enforcement of the new MINER safety act.

With the loss of House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, R-California, Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act reform will probably shift from Congress to administrative reform in the Executive Branch.

The good news is that streamlining of the permitting processing is a high priority for both Republicans and Democrats, especially permits issued under the Clean Water Act 404 and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), and a multi-sector hardrock mining stormwater permit. The definition of solid waste may also be revised under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

While Senate Majority Leader-designate Harry Reid, D-Nevada, is perceived as a strong hardrock mining proponent, Gerkin warned that Reid has to appease a national constituency and a coalition of Senate Democrats who aren’t pro-mining. ”We’re going to be playing a lot more defense and a lot less offense,” Gerkin explained.

Meanwhile, in a separate presentation Janine Clayton, Assistant Director, Minerals & Geology Management, U.S. Forest Service, called domestic oil and gas development ”a huge issue.” She said her agency is stressing the ability of the Forest Service to meet domestic energy resource needs. However, while the streamlining of oil and gas permitting has been budgeted, Clayton says, less than 6% of the USFS budget will allocated be allocated to minerals and geology.

Clayton predicted more congressional oversight for federal agencies regarding energy-related issues. Meanwhile, the Iraq War is drawing additional resources from federal agency budgets. However, with the change in congressional committee leadership, budget priorities may shift away from the Iraq War, she suggested.

Bob Anderson, Deputy Assistant Director, Minerals and Energy, Bureau of Land Management, said the BLM’s performance measure priorities include decreasing the average time to approve mining plans of operations, ensuring that reclamation bonding amounts are adequate, and determining the average time to approve a plan of operations.

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