To transition to clean energy, we must update mining practices
Transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy is not just an option — it’s the path forward if we want a livable planet for all. But as critical mineral demand rises to power technologies like electric cars, trucks and buses that help us move toward a 100 percent clean grid, we must also make sure that the way we extract these resources is sustainable, ethical and pro-worker, as well as abides by environmental and human rights laws.
Right now, this bold vision forward is being dragged backward by the antiquated 1872 mining law, which, since its inception, was designed to prioritize the interests of mining companies over Indigenous rights, conservation, recreation, renewable energy development and other land uses. America has undergone tremendous change in the past 150 years, and yet this archaic law still governs 350 million acres of our public lands — nearly 15 percent of our country — threatening some of our most treasured spaces and putting communities at risk.
What’s on the butcher block? Some of our most iconic places, like the Grand Canyon, Conglomerate Mesa and the Boundary Waters, not to mention Indigenous sacred sites, such as Oak Flat, are facing the threat of becoming the next mining project. That’s because under the current regulations, there is hardly any discretion between our county’s most valued, special places and the location for the next mining site.
Beyond this, mining companies are not held responsible for cleaning up their messes, and also haven’t paid royalties on minerals extracted from public lands for one and a half centuries. There are currently more than half a million abandoned mines across the country, with the clean up costing an estimated $50 billion. Mining companies are not even footing the bill, leaving these costs to fall onto taxpayers. Beyond the financial implications, in the wake of mining projects is toxic pollution, creating irreparable damage to water systems, devastating wildlife and habitats and harming downstream communities.
We cannot repeat the mistakes of the fossil fuel industry and create the very same “sacrifice zones” in the process to extract critical minerals needed for the clean energy transition. We must protect frontline communities from the impacts of mining and prioritize safeguarding the places people live and work and the public lands we cherish.
If we want to make the transition toward a clean energy economy, there is a clear way forward: Congress must pass House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Raul Grijalva’s (D-Ariz.) Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act of 2022, H.R. 7580 to bring our mining laws into the 21st century, ensure our communities and treasured places are protected, put an end to subsidizing mining projects that poison our land, along with finally compensating taxpayers for the use of our public land.
The Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act would remove the no strings attached, unrestricted access mining companies have to our public lands and protect our unique natural places, create a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund to clean up the expensive and harmful abandoned mine sites, as well as establish royalties on new and existing mining operations to ensure a fair return for taxpayers. It would also ensure environmental standards are set and maintained to protect our lands, workers and communities.
American leadership must meet the moment so we can be global leaders in the transition to clean energy. But we cannot do this while investing in dirty mining or being beholden to laws that harm people and the planet. Passing the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act of 2022 gives us the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the fossil fuel industry, protect the environment and at-risk communities, as well as develop a sustainable economy once and for all.
John W.S. Dunmore is a federal lobbyist and federal policy associate with Sierra Club’s Federal Lands Protection Program, working on public land issues to ensure a decent quality of life for all.
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