Amendment would reform outdated 1872 Mining Law to set royalty rate for hardrock mining and fund abandoned mine cleanup


WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), joined by U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) offered an amendment to the American Energy and Innovation Act, the energy bill pending on the Senate floor, to finally require mining companies to pay a royalty rate and reclamation fee for the ability to extract mineral resources like gold, silver, and copper on public lands. 


Under the outdated Mining Law of 1872, mining operators pay no royalties for the privilege of extracting valuable minerals from public lands, unlike oil and gas and coal producers. The underlying energy bill would grant mining companies new permit fast-tracking benefits that would limit public input on federal environmental reviews for mining projects for designated “critical minerals.”


“Since President Grant signed the 1872 General Mining Act into law, mining companies have extracted $300 billion worth of minerals from federal lands without paying one dime in royalties,” said Udall, who has introduced mining reform legislation in several Congresses, including in the aftermath of the massive Gold King Mine spill in Colorado that polluted waters in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. “If mining companies – many of them foreign-owned with billionaire investors – want new favors like those in the Clean Energy Innovation Act that will help them profit from public lands, then they need to finally pay their fair share.”  


Under the Hardrock Royalty and Reclamation Fee Amendment, future mines would have to pay a royalty, between five and eight percent, for the first time in U.S. history. Additionally, the amendment would place a reclamation fee, between one and three percent, on both existing and future mines. The reclamation fee’s proceeds would be dedicated to cleaning up historic mine waste across public, private, and tribal lands. According to a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office, historic mining has littered the west with over 160,000 abandoned mines. Of these, 33,000 mines pollute waterways with toxic discharge every day, leaving the American taxpayers facing a cleanup bill of $50 billion.


The senators’ amendment is highly relevant because the pending energy bill includes a controversial provision setting arbitrary deadlines and metrics on federal environmental reviews of mines for so-called “critical minerals.” These deadlines and annual reviews would reduce both agency review of and public comment on proposed mining projects, leading to fast-tracking of potentially dangerous mines and further extending the mining industry's toxic legacy for years to come. Under the critical minerals provision, over 30 minerals are already designated as critical and the Secretary retains discretion to designate additional ones as critical.


“If you mine coal that is owned by the American people, you have to bid on a lease, pay a royalty, and pay into a fund that cleans up old abandoned coal mines. Hardrock mining companies currently do none of this. And we see the consequences of this policy every day as abandoned mines throughout the West leak hazardous chemicals into our waterways. Sometimes that pollution is highly visible, as with the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 that turned the San Juan River in northwest New Mexico florescent orange. But even when we can’t see it, old mines are leaking toxic chemicals into our rivers every day,” said Heinrich. “It is time that Congress overhaul our outdated and ineffective federal hardrock mining policy so taxpayers aren’t the ones on the hook when something goes wrong.”


“While mining is a part of our heritage, Coloradans deserve a fair return for the industry’s use of our public lands,” said Bennet. “Updating the antiquated 1872 mining law by finally setting a royalty for hardrock mining is a step in the right direction. By providing much-needed resources to help clean up contaminated watersheds, this amendment would be a win for Colorado.” 


“Allowing multinational mining companies to extract minerals from public lands for free isn’t just outdated, it’s outrageous. These minerals belong to the American people and it is high time that mining companies pay their fair share so that we can clean up dangerous, hazardous abandoned mines,” said Markey.


“For too long, outdated mining laws have given mining companies free rein to profit off our precious public lands,” Wyden said. “It’s time that Congress end this free-for-all and make sure hardrock mining companies pay their fair share.”


Beginning in 2015 and in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill, Udall has led the Senate’s push to modernize the nation’s out of date hardrock mining laws.  He introduced the current version, S. 1386, in May 2019 and was joined by seven cosponsors. In addition to the financial provisions contained the Hardrock Royalty and Reclamation Fee Amendment, the larger bill would overhaul the hardrock minerals claim and leasing process, and allow states, tribes, and public citizens a greater voice by allowing them to nominate federal lands, where mining activity is not appropriate, to the Secretary of the Interior to prevent future mineral extraction. 


The full text of the amendment can be found HERE.