A Commerce Department report about U.S. reliance on foreign sources of minerals deemed essential for national security has stirred fears among environmental groups that the Trump administration may lift existing bans on new mining claims on public lands, including sites near the Grand Canyon.
Commerce recommended in the report released Tuesday that the Interior and Agriculture Departments complete a “thorough review” of all such bans — also called withdrawals — and develop “appropriate measures to reduce unnecessary impacts that they may have on mineral exploration, development and other activities.”
Environmental groups including Earthworks and the Grand Canyon Trust say they worry the report could give the Trump administration a rationale for opening federal lands to new mineral extraction, including in places previously believed to be off-the-table. They fear especially that it could lead to the rescission of the 20-year moratorium on new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon put in place by the Obama administration.
“This appears to be every mineral withdrawal ever created,” Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel at Earthworks, said, adding the review outlined by Commerce would be much larger in scope than the Interior Department’s 2017 review of national monument designations. “What we see here is an attempt to undo every mineral withdrawal ever done in the history of our Union. I don’t see any other way to read this.”
The Trump administration says it has been increasingly concerned about domestic supplies of minerals it has deemed essential to the nation’s economic and national security. These efforts are supported broadly by congressional Republicans and some Democrats. Last month Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and ranking member Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., introduced legislation intended to expand federal support for domestic critical minerals production.
Commerce’s report asserted U.S. reliance on imported minerals is risky. “If China or Russia were to stop exports to the United States and its allies for a prolonged period . . . an extended supply disruption could cause significant shocks throughout U.S. and foreign critical mineral supply chains.”
Environmental groups say they are concerned the administration’s initiative could affect sites near the Grand Canyon that contain uranium reserves sought by groups that for years have fought against the ban in court.
After the department determined uranium was a critical mineral, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke faced pressure to pledge the department would not revisit the 20-year ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. Conservation group Trout Unlimited put up a billboard outside Phoenix calling on Zinke to protect the canyon, and his office responded with a statement saying no one planned to touch the ban.
“The Secretary has no intention to revisit uranium mining in and around the canyon and has made exactly zero moves to suggest otherwise,” former Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said at the time.
His successor David Bernhardt, previously a lobbyist for mining interests, has made no such pledge. At a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing Wednesday, a senior Interior official told lawmakers to consider impacts on nearby uranium mining companies if they were going to pass legislation to make the canyon’s protections permanent.
Michael Nedd, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management, told lawmakers that if Congress is going to make the Grand Canyon protections permanent it should include “boundary adjustments to ensure local availability of minerals materials for nearby communities and to enable environmentally responsible development of critical minerals such as uranium and other mineral resources.”
In 2012, the Obama administration announced a 20-year ban on new mining projects for uranium and other hardrock minerals on over one million acres near the Grand Canyon. The administration said it was responding to concerns raised by Native American communities living in the area that new uranium projects could contaminate the water sources they rely on to survive.
Uranium companies assert these concerns are unfounded and that technological developments in their industry have made extracting the mineral safer. The National Mining Association and other mining groups have levied legal challenges to the ban, efforts that continued until the Supreme Court last year declined to review an appeals court ruling that the ban was lawfully implemented.
Critical mineral list
Supporters of the ban became concerned in 2017 after the Forest Service, which has joint oversight of the mining ban along with the Interior Department, recommended in a report that the president should “revise” the ban to promote domestic uranium production.
One month later, the president issued an executive order asking the Interior Department to draft a new list of minerals deemed critical to U.S. national security. When Interior released its new list, it included uranium for the first time.
The Commerce Department, per the executive order, then began preparing recommendations for implementing that list. Until the report’s release, the ban’s supporters feared the eventual report issued by the department could set the stage for scrapping it.
“If the administration tries to come after the Grand Canyon mining ban, they will have a fight on their hands,” said Amber Reimondo, energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, in an e-mail Tuesday evening.
In September, Bernhardt, then Zinke’s deputy, privately met with supporters of the Grand Canyon mining ban who sought to discuss the state of affairs.
Two activists present at the meeting — Reimondo and Brad Powell of Trout Unlimited — told CQ Roll Call they wanted to meet with him to voice concerns that Commerce’s ongoing critical minerals investigation could tie into that same department’s probe into whether the administration should impose tariffs or quotas on imported uranium for national security reasons.
Those processes put together could end up creating a reason to scrap the ban, Reimondo and Powell both said. Bernhardt declined to give an affirmative commitment to protect the canyon, they said, instead saying there was “no reason” for him to reconsider the ban.
The meeting was one of many on Bernhardt’s public calendars described only as “External Meeting,” and was only revealed after the department released copies of a separate personal itinerary that was kept on a Google document regularly overwritten by staff. The previously undisclosed schedule also included multiple appointments for Bernhardt in 2017 and 2018 with the National Mining Association, including a July 2018 lunch with its president and CEO Hal Quinn.
CQ Roll Call in April asked whether Bernhardt was open to reconsidering the Grand Canyon mining ban depending on the Commerce Department’s recommendations on critical minerals and the trade investigation.
Spokeswoman Molly Block said Bernhardt “hasn’t made any decisions on this matter” and that “the Department’s work is always a balancing act between accessing critical minerals and protecting national treasures.”
Asked Wednesday if Bernhardt’s opinions have changed since the report’s release, Block said what Bernhardt told activists in September remains his “current position.”