Democrats are preparing to counter any White House efforts to allow mining near the Grand Canyon, with Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) leading the charge to pass legislation aimed at warding off what he called “an imminent threat” to the country’s most iconic national park.
House passage of Grijalva's bill, slated for a Wednesday floor vote, sets a permanent moratorium on new mining claims on approximately 1 million acres north and south of Grand Canyon National Park, essentially creating a safety zone around the park. The Natural Resources Committee chairman said the measure also reflects the reality of climate change.
House passage of Grijalva's bill, slated for a Wednesday floor vote,
“Fundamentally ... this is what we need to be doing to deal with climate change in our public lands — to begin to reduce the extraction and promote the conservation side of it,” Grijalva said.
The legislation, Grijalva said, is designed to guard against forthcoming recommendations from The White House's Nuclear Fuel Working Group. As early as next month, the group of government officials could recommend mining uranium near the Grand Canyon.
Grijalva said he previously thought a two-decade moratorium on mining near the national park, implemented in 2012, would be enough to ward off efforts to extract uranium and other minerals in nearby federal land. But now he isn’t taking any risks.
“Before the working group, the motivation for this was: We've wanted to do this for a long time, even during [the Obama administration]. But then the motivation became: They're going to lift the moratorium,” Grijalva said during a sitdown interview with The Hill on Oct. 18.
“We’ve always felt that we could wait these people out and then get back to it when we had an administration to work with. But then it was verified for us when we saw the working group. And then I said, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty real.’”
Trump began signaling support for renewed uranium mining near the Grand Canyon early on in his presidency, starting with a 2017 decision to declare uranium a critical mineral for national security purposes. And earlier this year, the Commerce Department recommended mining reserves of uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons.
By July, the White House was putting together a working group to advise on methods of maintaining a strong nuclear fuel supply chain.
The working group, which has postponed its recommendations until mid-November, is including in their considerations a Cold War-era law that mandates the federal government buy uranium for enrichment for national security purposes. Uranium mining and utility industries argue the government is risking national security by relying on foreign governments for its uranium needs.
“We’re hoping for immediate relief. ... We need long term demand that supports a viable front in nuclear fuel cycle, mining, conversion and enrichment,” said Mark Chalmers, president and CEO of Energy Fuels, the largest uranium producer in the U.S.
“We’re the largest consumer of uranium products in the world by country mile for nuclear power,” he added in an Oct. 11 interview. “Effectively looking to 2020 without relief we’ll have zero capability.”
Critics of the working group argue the federal government already owns large stockpiles of uranium, used both for energy and atomic bombs. Additionally, they argue the fuel source is easy to obtain from U.S. allies like Canada and Australia, and that any move by the federal government to bolster domestic production would be akin to propping up an industry. The price of uranium is at its lowest level in more than a decade.
“So the industry wants a sweetheart deal. They want to expedite their critical minerals so they can just keep skip the process. And then more importantly, a guaranteed buyback,” Grijalva said. “Talk about creeping socialism. My God, we’re guaranteeing a revenue-based system. That rarely, if at all, happens.”
If the White House decides to adopt suggestions by the working group that benefit the uranium industry, it could then choose to overturn the 2012 mining ban that put nearly 1,562 square miles off limits outside the boundaries of the Grand Canyon. Energy Fuels, a uranium producer, holds 84 claims on mines within the Grand Canyon mining ban boundary.
Grijalva said his bill aims to cement that ban, an action he wished he could have done under the Obama administration, but lacked the political backing to do so with then-Sen. Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt Fight over Biden agenda looms large over Virginia governor's race MORE (D-Nev.) as Senate majority leader.
“[The moratorium] was a pretty significant victory for us at that point because, you know,
Harry Reid was in charge of the other side from Nevada and wasn't always open to restricting mining or reforming,” Grijalva said.
Now, a number of Democrats, including presidential hopefuls like Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMisguided recusal rules lock valuable leaders out of the Pentagon Biden's soft touch with Manchin, Sinema frustrates Democrats Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE (D-Mass.), support mining moratoriums on all public lands as climate change becomes a top issue in the 2020 Democratic primary.
The issue of uranium mining could also creep into next year’s Senate races, particularly in Arizona, where Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyKelly raises million in third quarter Ruben Gallego is left's favorite to take on Sinema Texas not hiring private contractor for election audit MORE (R) will defend her seat after being appointed to it last year. Republicans have largely pointed to the potential for job creation in their support of mining.
Grijalva’s bill, though, is likely dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate. There is no companion legislation in the upper chamber, even though his measure has support from some White House hopefuls.
But even without making it to the president’s desk, Grijalva said House passage will mark a political victory, much like the 20-year ban during the Obama administration.
“It’s to profile momentum, and get the fact that there is an alternative out there,” he said. “And it's against what the administration is doing.”
This story has been updated.