Newspaper column: Governor offers a way to save sage grouse and mining

Gov. Brian Sandoval is imploring the Interior Department to accept a state-created alternative to its proposed draconian plan to remove millions of acres of federal public land from productive use — specifically mining — as a way of paying lip service to saving greater sage grouse habitat.

In September the federal agency declined to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act and instead issued land use plans that bar mineral exploration and development on nearly 3 million acres within Nevada and restricts grazing and public access on a total of 16 million acres in the state.

Greater sage grouse (Rawlins Daily Times via AP)

On Jan. 15, Sandoval sent a letter to Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management, which is a division of Interior and the agency overseeing the bulk of federal public lands in the state, asking him to accept a state proposal that would essentially swap parcels of land to be protected. Instead of restricting mining on 555,000 acres as the federal land use plan outlines, the state plan would restrict mining on 394,000 acres, but the swap would protect an additional 44 active sage grouse leks, as breeding grounds are called. The swap also could free up as many as 3,700 existing mining claims.

The governor warned in a press release this past week that failure to negotiate in good faith would result in his administration pursuing legal options.

Such a legal option is already being pursued, though the governor has insisted it is premature. The state, nine counties, three mining companies and a ranch have filed suit in federal court to block the land use plan.

A Reno federal judge refused to grant an injunction but a trail could take place this summer.

In his letter, Sandoval argues that the grouse protection restrictions would have serious economic impact on the Nevada economy and jobs.

A single lithium mining project in Humboldt County is estimated to have a direct economic impact of $2.5 billion over the life of the project and indirect impact of $3.4 billion, while creating 9,000 person-years of employment and half a billion dollars in salaries. State and local tax revenues are expected to exceed $100 million.

Lithium is used to make lithium-ion batteries used in electric and hybrid cars. The Tesla Motors/Panasonic battery manufacturing plant near Sparks is expected to consume a huge amount of lithium.

“I believe the proposed land withdrawal will not be able to show any measurable results except for the demise of the mineral exploration industry in Nevada,” Sandoval pointedly states. “The urgency to implement the withdrawal proposal prior to conducting the proper analysis needed to evaluate the efficacy of the action and socio-economic impact of the action is unclear,” adding that the agencies involved have “provided no science or analysis at any level to support the rationale” for excluding mining operations.

As for the threats to sage grouse habitat, Sandoval notes, as he has repeatedly in the past, that wild horse overpopulation, invasive species and huge wildfires that consume hundreds of thousands of acres at a time pose a far more significant danger to the grouse than mining, but little, if anything, is being done about those threats.

Additionally, there is relatively little reliable information on just how threatened the grouse population really is. Sandoval’s letter notes one major grouse habitat region nearly doubled in population during a recent three-year period.

Though Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stated that valid existing mining claims are exempt from any withdrawals, the governor points out that the definition of such valid claims cannot be found in the Federal Register. There is a question as to whether unpatented mining claims — on which millions of dollars in annual fees have been paid but the claims are not yet worked — will be classified as valid existing claims. Sandoval said this needs to be clarified.

In a press release this past week, Sandoval described his proposal as a win-win. “The proposal detailed in the state’s response delivers a ‘win-win’ solution in an effort to achieve the mutual goals of preserving our thriving mining industry, protecting the sage-grouse and enhancing its habitat and maintaining our state’s vast potential for future economic development opportunities. With the correct plan and management Nevada’s mining industry, the sage-grouse, and future economic development can all coexist and flourish in the Silver State,” he wrote.

BLM Nevada spokesman Stephen Clutter told The Associated Press, “We will certainly give serious consideration to these ideas as well as the other scoping comments we have received.”

That would be a change from past behavior.

A version of this column appears this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, the Lincoln County Record and the Sparks Tribune — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: Bill to speed up mining permitting process would be a boon to Nevada

Nevada miners (Nevada Mining Association photo)

Rep. Mark Amodei, who represents the northern half of rural Nevada, recently introduced a bill in Congress intended to force the federal land agencies to get into gear, setting the total review process for issuing mining permits at 30 months tops.

Currently, according to The Wall Street Journal, permitting a mine on federal land takes seven to 10 years or longer — the longest permitting period of any nation on earth.

Amodei’s H.R. 1937, the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Act of 2015, already has 29 sponsors. The Nevada congressman said his legislation is intended to reduce American dependence on foreign minerals, many of which are vital to industry and the military, but currently are being imported from countries such as China.

“It’s not hyperbole to say our national defense and way of life depend on mineral production,” said Amodei in a press release heralding the bill. “From military technology, such as aircraft and missiles used by service men and women to defend our country, to the cars, smartphones and televisions we use every day, they all contain strategic and critical minerals such as rare earth elements, gold and silver, to name a few.”

Amodei blames the permitting delays on duplicative regulations, bureaucratic inefficiency and lack of coordination between federal agencies.

Nevada is rich in minerals — gold, copper, lithium, molybdenum, gypsum, etc.

“Permitting delays stand in the way of high-paying jobs and revenue for local, often rural, communities,” Amodei said. “This legislation does nothing to circumvent environmental regulations or public input. It would simply streamline the permitting process to leverage our nation’s vast mineral resources, while paying due respect to economic, national security and environmental concerns.”

Delays in permitting have tremendous impact on the state’s economy. Mining directly employs more than 11,000 people and another 14,000 jobs provide goods and services to the industry. The average wage is nearly $90,000, double the statewide average wage. The industry pays more than $400 million in state and local taxes.

Amodei’s bill also addresses the fact that environmental groups frequently file frivolous legal challenges to mining operations. The bill sets a 60-day time limit to file a legal challenge to a mining project, gives standing to project proponents, and limits injunctive relief to what is necessary to correct the violation of a legal requirement, and prohibits the payment of attorney’s fees, expenses and other costs by the U.S. taxpayer.

“While few countries can rival our abundance of mineral resources, even fewer have a permitting system as inefficient as the U.S.,” National Mining Association CEO Hal Quinn said about the bill. “Our inefficient and duplicative permitting process discourages investment and jeopardizes the growth of downstream industries, related jobs and technological innovation that all depend on a secure and reliable mineral supply chain.”

Amodei’s bill is similar to a bill the House passed in the previous session of Congress. It went nowhere in the Harry Reid-controlled Senate.

We urge our Washington delegation to press for passage of the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Act of 2015 for the sake of our strategic defenses, our manufacturing industries and the economic well-being of Nevada and the West. Perhaps Sen. Dean Heller can shepherd the bill in the Senate.

Amodei mining bill

A version of this editorial appears this week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record.

Amodei gets minerals bills passed, will Reid drop the ball?

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei’s H.R. 761, the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act, 246-178.  Now, let’s see what Nevada’s Harry Reid does with it in the Senate. He’s thrown a few monkey wrenches before.

This legislation would allow the United States to more efficiently develop strategic and critical minerals, such as rare earths.

“Nevada, which is rich in strategic and critical minerals, also has the highest unemployment rate in the nation,” Amodei said. “Decade-long permitting delays stand in the way of high-paying jobs and revenue for local communities. This bill would not change environmental regulations or public input.  It would streamline the permitting process to leverage our nation’s vast mineral resources, while paying due respect to economic, national security, and environmental concerns.”

Rep. Mark Amodei, pointing, visit Pumpkin Hollow copper mine.

Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings of Washington commented, “President Obama routinely talks about wanting to create American jobs but his Administration continues to stand in the way of job creation with excessive red-tape and regulation, especially when it comes to mining strategic and critical minerals in America.  Right now, it can take up to 10 years for the federal government to issue permits to mine these minerals that are vital to America’s manufacturing sector.  This is unacceptable and forces the U.S. to rely almost entirely on countries like China for these minerals.”

Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming commented, “Right now, nearly all of our rare earth minerals are imported from countries like China. These minerals are used in our everyday devices, from cell phones to medical equipment, and are also necessary for national defense and manufacturing.  This near total and dangerous dependence on others for our critical minerals is senseless.  We have much of the minerals we need right here in Wyoming. Unfortunately we also have truckloads of red tape that we don’t need. Among the top 25 mining countries in the world, the United States ranks last, right alongside Papua New Guinea in mine permit delays. The bi-partisan National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013 will help us cut through this red tape to restore the many mining jobs that have fled overseas, enhance our independence and national defense, and secure critical materials for U.S. manufacturing.”

 The bill specifically:

  • Requires the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture to more efficiently develop domestic sources of strategic and critical minerals and mineral materials; including rare earth elements.
  • Defines strategic and critical minerals as those that are necessary:
  • For national defense and national security requirements;
  • For the Nation’s energy infrastructure including pipelines, refining capacity, electrical power generation and transmission, and renewable energy production;
  • To support domestic manufacturing, agriculture, housing, telecommunications, healthcare and transportation infrastructure; or
  • For the Nation’s economic security and balance of trade.
  • Facilitates a timely permitting process for mineral exploration projects by clearly defining the responsibilities of a lead agency. 
  • Sets the total review process for issuing permits to 30 months.
  • Ensures American mining projects are not indefinitely delayed by frivolous lawsuits by setting reasonable time limits for litigation.
  • Sets a 60-day time limit to file a legal challenge to a mining project, gives standing to project proponents, and limits injunctive relief to what is necessary to correct the violation of a legal requirement, and prohibits the payment of attorney’s fees, expenses  and other costs by the U.S. taxpayer. 
  • Respects and upholds all environmental laws while setting timelines that ensure these laws do not become tools for lawsuits or bureaucrats to block or delay responsible projects.

Chances of the bill passing in the Senate appear dim since a previous incarnation of Amodei’s legislation died in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2012.

Obama’s budget is a declaration of war on the West

President Obama’s budget may well be dead on arrival, but its fetid corpse tells a tale of just what his administration thinks of the West, according to this week’s newspaper column, available online at The Ely Times and the Elko Daily Free Press.

The budget proposes to raise grazing fees on both Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land by $1 a head per month — a 74 percent increase.

The budget also seeks to pick the pockets of drillers of oil and natural gas wells on federally controlled land by increasing royalty payments by $2.5 billion over the next 10 years.

Cattle grazing near Austin, Nev.

While the Obama administration is trying to declare various species across the West threatened or endangered — most of which are threatened or endangered due to the huge increase in wildfires — his budget proposes to slash funding for a program to reduce the dried brush and trees that fuel those fires by $90 million in 2014.

Both Reps. Mark Amodei and Steven Horsford — who together represent the bulk of rural Nevada, 85 percent of which is controlled by various federal agencies — were dismissive of the Obama budget.

Amodei, a Republican, commented, “With yet another budget from the president that doesn’t balance, increases spending, raises taxes, raises grazing fees, and continues to block American energy production, I suspect it will meet the same fate as his last budget — voted down 97-0 in the Senate and 419-0 in the House.”

Horsford, a Democrat, said, “The president’s budget is just one of many budget proposals, and as we hopefully continue through the budget process, we will have to consider a variety of funding priorities. I will fight to make sure the rural communities in my district have the resources they need and the representation they deserve to maintain their livelihood.”

“Our nation is nearly $17 trillion in debt,” observed Sen. Dean Heller. “At a time when Nevadans are simply trying to keep their heads above water, the president is asking for another $8.2 trillion, partly on the backs of our ranchers and rural communities.”

Dustin Van Liew, a spokesman for both the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said the budget shows this administration has no understanding of American agriculture.

“The president’s lack of understanding for the federal lands grazing industry, as evidenced by his proposed 74 percent tax on federal land ranchers, is extremely disappointing,” Van Liew said. “Effectively increasing the grazing fee during these times of economic uncertainty will unnecessarily increase burdens on livestock producers and hamper their ability to create jobs and generate economic growth in their communities.”

Read the full column online at Ely and Elko websites.