WASHINGTON – Just a month after U.S. House Republicans introduced a bill to streamline the permitting process for mineral mining, the Trump administration has asked the same of the U.S. Department of the Interior and directed the agency to search nationwide for opportunities to mine critical minerals.
Critical minerals are a group of 35 elements such as aluminum, lithium and rare earth elements that the White House has determined play an essential role in the U.S. economy and national security. They are used to produce jet engines, smartphones, earbuds and numerous other products.
China thrust rare earth elements – a smaller group of ultra-scarce minerals used in high-tech electronics – into the spotlight recently when the country threatened to restrict rare-earth element exports to the U.S. as part of the trade war, according to a Reuters report. The U.S. has just one working rare-earth element mine, which is in Mountain Pass, California. China supplies 80% of the U.S.’s rare earth imports with Estonia, France and Japan accounting for the remainder.
A U.S. Geological Survey map shows that Colorado has at least three rare-earth element deposits: one in Gunnison County, one in Custer County and one in Fremont County.
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, who co-sponsored the bill aiming to expedite the critical mining permitting process, voiced his support for the Trump administration’s efforts in an email to The Durango Herald.
“The administration is right to seek ways to reduce dependency on China, and I look forward to advancing policies that better support responsible domestic mining to ensure Americans are not unduly impacted by any potential long-term trade negotiations,” he said.
The mining industry is one of Tipton’s top campaign donors. The industry contributed $47,150 to his 2014 re-election campaign, according to the watchdog group Open Secrets.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said in a phone interview that speeding up the mining permitting process may result in relaxed environmental standards.
“As a consumer, I want to know that the strategic minerals that are being used in the phones that I buy and in the computers that I buy have been responsibly sourced and don’t come from a dirty mine that has polluted a watershed or a community’s drinking water supply,” Lachelt said.
Lachelt, a Democrat, said that the hard-rock mining industry needs reform, but she favors a bill introduced last month by a group of Democratic senators, including Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. The bill, which Tipton opposes, aims to update a 147-year-old mining law by establishing a 12.5% royalty on new hard-rock mining projects on federal lands. Royalties would contribute to a reclamation fund to help clean up abandoned mines. Unlike oil, gas and coal, hard rock miners are not required to pay royalties for projects on federal lands under the current law, the General Mining Act of 1872.
“It’s such an embarrassing giveaway to hard-rock mining companies,” Lachelt said. “We absolutely have to elevate the hard-rock mining industry to the same environmental standards that other industries are required to adhere to.”
James Marshall is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.