The Obama administration's Bureau of Land Management has made 303,900 acres of public lands in six Western states off limits to miners for the next 20 years — the maximum period allowed by law —ostensibly to make the land available for solar energy development.
"It is almost like shooting yourself in the foot to withdraw these lands from the potential development and continuing development of minerals mining," National Mining Association spokeswoman Nancy Gravatt told Newsmax.
The lands could hold minerals necessary to a variety of industries and the miners say the withdrawal contradicts President Barack Obama's goal of better developing access to critical minerals in the United States.
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"There here already are vast amounts of federal lands that are closed or restricted to mining operations," Gravatt said. "About half of all federally owned public lands are either restricted or banned to new mining operations. So, we take it quite seriously when the administration announces that there will be 300,000 acres withdrawn from minerals mining."
The BLM's most recent withdrawal of land from mining claims is "to protect 17 Solar Energy Zones…for future energy development," according to a Federal Register announcement by Rhea S. Suh, assistant secretary of the Interior for policy, management and budget.
Gravatt said that opening the land to mining could help prevent the United States from a reliance on other nations for certain critical minerals.
"The president has stated one of his goals is to see the U.S. better develop its critical minerals so that we're not so dependent on other nations," Gravatt said. Some of the same minerals necessary for the defense industry are also used in renewable energy development, such as solar panels, she said.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey report
, the United States was reliant on imports in 2012 for more than half of 41 critical minerals, and was 100-percent reliant on 17 minerals, including niobium (used in jet and rocket engines and in superconducting magnets used in MRI machines), rubidium (used in lasers and atomic clocks) and scandium (used in high-performance defense aviation alloys).
Of the many minerals mined in the six U.S. states, molybdenum and manganese are important to military vehicle production, such as jeeps and MRAPs, and aluminum and copper are important to fighter jets, Gravatt said.
Colorado Mining Association President Stewart Sanderson told Newsmax that the mining moratorium "could increase our reliance on minerals produced in foreign countries."
Laura Skaer, executive director of the NW Mining Association (NWMA) agreed. "Withdrawing more and more acreage from mineral entry … doesn't help our ability to respond to our dependency on foreign sources of minerals."
The latest withdrawal comes as miners are still battling the Obama administration in court over a similar ban on mining on more than one million uranium-rich acres in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon — an area containing 46 percent of the known uranium reserves, Skaer told Newsmax.
The principal relationship between the two mining bans is the shared 20-year waiting period, Skaer said, another example of "overkill." The NWMA is one of the plaintiffs in the court case, which Skaer says miners will take to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals if they lose in the lower courts.
"With this administration, if it's renewable energy it's good, if it's any other kind of energy, it's bad," Skaer said.
Miners are also calling the BLM action "overkill," because they say mining and solar energy production are not mutually exclusive activities.
Gravatt said "there is no reason for the BLM to withdraw that land from mining because it's contrary to the multiple-use mandate "of federal land policy, which allows that "with few exceptions, mineral exploration development can occur concurrently with other resource uses."
Richard D. Bouts, analyst with BLM's National Renewable Energy Coordination Office in Washington, said that mineral assessments are done before lands are withdrawn from mining use, and "there is nothing of significance in these lands."
However, miners strongly disagree with Bout's assessment.
"When they say that there's very little mineral potential here, they really don't know what they're talking about, because they don't have the data," Skaer said. "The United States Geological Survey is…woefully behind in doing mineral assessments of the public lands. I think BLM is speculating about the lack of mineral potential there."
In some of the areas where no claims had been filed, BLM "might just assume that because there are no claims there is no mineral potential," Skaer said.
However, NWMA members using new exploration and mining techniques "are finding mineral deposits in places [where] 20 or 30 years ago nobody thought to look," she said. "So, just because there's no known mineral deposit in a given area right now doesn't mean that the area is necessarily barren of mineral deposits."
"The private sector has proven to be adept at locating claims and proving up claims, so that BLM's assessment is not necessarily the be-all, end-all," said Sanderson of the Colorado Mining Association.
Bouts of the BLM said that another reason for the mining withdrawal is that some people make mining claims, but do not develop them only to attempt to sell the claims later at a profit when the land is needed for some other purpose.
The land will now be leased through a bidding process followed by lengthy environmental impact assessments, but without an extensive comment period, Bouts said.
"That's kind of an outdated view of the mining laws," Sanderson said. A company "can't simply just hold a claim to some non-mining use. There are use and occupancy requirements."
"The ironic result [of the mining ban] is that it's going to create a situation where they may be cutting off access to minerals that are used in the development of solar technologies," Sanderson said.
The federal government owns nearly 28 percent of all U.S. land — as much as 640 million acres, of which BLM administers 247.9 million acres, though it is also responsible for 700 million acres of underground mineral resources, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report
"Economically viable mineral deposits are rare and hard to find and they are where God put them. You can't relocate them. You can't move them," Skaer said. "If you get out in the Western desert, where the sun shines just about everywhere, you can locate your solar farm [and] solar energy development projects, but you can't relocate mineral deposits."
Should Republicans take control of the Senate in the 2014 mid-term elections, or if a Republican administration enters the White House in 2016, miners feel they would have a chance at recovering access to the withdrawn lands.
They cite the example of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit's mineral withdrawal of 700,000 acres in the Sisikiyou National Forest in southern Oregon in the waning days of the Clinton administration. President George W. Bush in the opening days of his administration cancelled Babbit's decision.
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