In last rush, Donald Trump grants mining and energy firms access to public lands

Last Updated : 20 December 2020, 03:12 IST
Last Updated : 20 December 2020, 03:12 IST

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The Trump administration is rushing to approve a final wave of large-scale mining and energy projects on federal lands, encouraged by investors who want to try to ensure the projects move ahead even after President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

In Arizona, the Forest Service is preparing to sign off on the transfer of federal forest land — considered sacred by a neighboring Native American tribe — to allow construction of one of the nation’s largest copper mines.

In Utah, the Interior Department may grant final approval as soon as next week to a team of energy speculators targeting a remote spot inside an iconic national wilderness area — where new energy leasing is currently banned — so they can start drilling into what they believe is a huge underground supply of helium.

In northern Nevada, the department is close to granting final approval to construct a sprawling open-pit lithium mine on federal land that sits above a prehistoric volcano site.

And in the East, the Forest Service intends to take a key step next month toward allowing a natural gas pipeline to be built through Jefferson National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia, at one point running underneath the Appalachian Trail.

These projects, and others awaiting action in the remaining weeks of the Trump administration, reflect the intense push by the Interior Department, which controls 480 million acres of public lands, and the Forest Service, which manages another 193 million acres, to find ways to increase domestic energy and mining production, even in the face of intense protests by environmentalists and other activists.

When he takes office Jan. 20, Biden, who has chosen a Native American — Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. — to lead the Interior Department, will still have the ability to reshape, slow or even block certain projects.

Some, like a planned uranium mine in South Dakota, will require further approvals. Others, like the planned helium drilling project in Utah, face lawsuits seeking to stop them. Still others, like the lithium mine in Nevada, will have the final federal permit needed before construction can begin and will be hard for the next administration to stop.

Whether they are the final word or not, the last-minute actions are just the latest evidence of how the far-reaching shift in regulatory policy under President Donald Trump has altered the balance between environmental concerns and business, giving substantial new weight to corporate interests.

Trump chose former industry executives to run major federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, and industry executives and lobbyists who cycled in and out of government positions were granted substantial influence in setting regulations.

For four years, Trump’s team and its allies have raced to roll back federal rules intended to protect federal lands and the nation’s air and water as well as other safety rules in agencies across the government. The changes were often made in direct response to requests from lobbyists and company executives who were major donors to Trump and frequent patrons at his hotels and resorts.

The final push on the mining and energy projects has come in part from senior Trump administration officials, including the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, a steel industry investor before joining Trump’s Cabinet.

Ross’ calendar shows at least three appointments with top executives at Rio Tinto, the Australia-based mining giant backing the Resolution Copper mine planned for construction in Arizona next to the San Carlos Apache reservation. Ross also made a trip to the mine site this year.

“This is a disaster,” said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former San Carlos Apache tribal leader who in recent weeks has been camping out at the proposed mine site inside Tonto National Forest to protest the pending decision.

Backers of these projects say they are committed to minimizing the effect on public lands, sacred Native American sites and wildlife.

“Our science-based decisions are legally compliant and based on an extensive process involving input from career subject matter experts and the public,” said Richard Packer, an Interior Department spokesperson, adding that the agency “continues to balance safe and responsible natural resource development with conservation of important surface resources.”

The administration has been seeking to promote more mining of key minerals — including uranium, copper and lithium — to allow the United States to be less dependent on imports.

But the environmental consequences of these projects, if they move ahead as planned, will be considerable.

Last month, the EPA gave its final approval for the construction of a new uranium mine called the Dewey-Burdock project, spread over 12,613 acres near the Black Hills region of South Dakota.

The project would inject a chemical called lixiviant into more than 1,461 wells, sending the chemical into an 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.

Nationally, just 174,000 pounds of uranium was produced last year in the United States. The South Dakota project alone would have the potential to produce as much as 1 million pounds of uranium a year, although it is unclear whether there will ever be sufficient demand to justify production at that level, given that there is already excess capacity at uranium mines in the country.

The Oglala Lakota Nation, whose 2.8 million-acre reservation is adjacent to the proposed uranium mine, has sued to block the project. The mine would be built on property that the Sioux tribe has long claimed was illegally taken by the United States.

“The voice of Indigenous people needs to be heard — and federal Indian policy has made us invisible and dehumanized us,” said Kyle White, 34, a member of the Lakota tribe and former director of its natural resources regulatory agency.

A small piece of the project is on Interior Department land. The department has not yet approved the mine and will not act until after Trump leaves office, one of several ways that the Biden administration could slow or block the project.

Azarga Uranium, the Canada-based backer of the project, did not respond to a request for comment.

For the proposed Resolution Copper Mine, east of Phoenix in Tonto National Forest, adjacent to Apache tribal land, the Forest Service is expected to issue its long-awaited final environmental assessment by mid-January.

Sixty days after the assessment is released, a 2,422-acre chunk of the Tonto forest, an area called Oak Flat, will automatically be transferred to the mining companies in exchange for land nearby, a deal mandated by Congress in 2014.

The Interior Department’s National Register of Historic Places lists the Oak Flat area as “a holy place and ancestral homeland to the Western Apache Indians” that is also “a venue for ongoing Apache participation in traditional social activities, and is associated with traditions rooted in the history” of the tribe.

Under the current Forest Service plan, much of Oak Flat would eventually be destroyed. Starting about six years after underground blasting and extraction at the mine begins, the mine will gradually start to cave in on itself, forming a crater nearly 2 miles wide and as much as 1,100 feet deep, according to federal estimates.

The project would create 3,700 jobs and supply as much as 1 billion pounds of copper per year, one-quarter of the current annual demand in the United States.

“That was one of the major reasons why President Trump moved so aggressively to reduce the red tape involved in such projects,” Ross said in remarks during his visit to the site in October.

The companies running the project — Rio Tinto and BHP, also based in Australia — have promised to build a campsite outside the mine area to replace one traditionally used by Native Americans in the Oak Flat area. Rio Tinto said it was also working to ensure there was no damage to a nearby area called Apache Leap where, according to tribal legends, Native Americans being chased by US Cavalry troops in the late-1800s jumped to their deaths.

But the ire of some members of the local San Carlos Apache Tribe toward Rio Tinto only intensified after the company admitted using dynamite to destroy a 46,000-year-old sacred Indigenous site in Australia as it expanded an iron ore mine.

A Forest Service employee working on the Arizona project acknowledged to community leaders in a recent conference call that pressure to get the evaluation of the project done quickly was “coming from the highest level,” mentioning the Agriculture Department, which oversees the service.

Federal records show that the environmental study until recently was expected to continue until the middle of 2021. It is now slated to be finished by mid-January. An agency spokesperson did not respond when asked to comment on claims that the process was being rushed. But Andrew Lye, project manager for Resolution Copper, said the review had actually taken longer than expected and been very thorough.

“It is not being fast-tracked, and Resolution Copper has not sought to apply for programs that are available to expedite projects,” Lye said.

Another mining project expecting imminent action by the Trump administration is in rural Nevada, where Canada-based Lithium Americas intends to build one of the world’s largest lithium mines on 5,500 acres of federal land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

Lithium is a vital ingredient in myriad batteries, including for cellphones and electric cars, but almost none of it is produced in the United States.

The project was listed in July by the Interior Department as one that it intended to “fast-track,” and it planned to take the final step in early January, meaning construction of the mine could begin soon.

But the Bureau of Land Management’s own environmental assessment acknowledges that the project will cause harm, including to the habitat of a threatened bird species known as sage grouse. Local ranchers and other families have expressed concern in comments to the agency that the project could cut the available local water supply and create other environmental problems.

The push to approve some of the projects has involved sustained lobbying and legal efforts by hired consultants with close ties to the Trump administration.

Those include Rebecca Watson, who served as the top Interior Department official in charge of oil and gas leasing during the Bush administration, working at the time alongside David Bernhardt, who is now the interior secretary.

Watson worked with other industry players over several years to urge lawmakers and senior officials at the Interior Department to change rules to allow her clients, now including Colorado-based Twin Bridges, to extract helium for more than a decade from federal lands, including land Twin Bridges has leased in Utah.

Watson said in an interview that increasing the supply of helium was critical to the nation. “Helium has a lot of strange little uses that people are not even familiar with, but they’re really important,” she said.

With time running out on the Trump administration, senior Interior Department officials were so determined to see the permit approved that they took control of the project from the local Utah office. Final action is now expected as soon this coming week, two agency officials said, even though the agency itself again acknowledged that the project will harm the area. Environmentalists filed a lawsuit Dec. 14 to try to block it.

David Wallace, an executive at Twin Bridges, said the project could ultimately generate hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of royalty and tax payments to federal, state and local governments.

“We also love these lands and are committed to our project enhancing, and not detracting from, them,” he said in a statement.

Opponents of the projects are keeping up pressure to try to stop them. That includes Nosie, who is camping out most nights on the sacred Oak Flat that could soon be transferred to Rio Tinto.

“As far as I am concerned, this is an invasion by a foreign power,” Nosie said. “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.”

Published 20 December 2020, 02:37 IST

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