NMA says current regulations provide comprehensive environmental protection for minerals mining; additional rules unwarranted

A comprehensive web of environmental laws and regulations covering mineral mining operations from ‘cradle-to-grave’ makes additional regulation redundant and unnecessary, a leading mineral mining expert told America’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week. Both federal and state agencies have rules to ensure all aspects of mineral mining – from exploration to reclamation and closure – are effective in protecting the environment, said William E. Cobb, Vice President of Environmental Services for Freeport McMoran Mining. Testifying for the National Mining Association (NMA), Cobb warned that proposals to provide the Secretary of the Interior with arbitrary discretion to stop mining operations that are in compliance with applicable regulations would expose the industry to further risk and uncertainty, driving more mining investment offshore and increasing the nation’s growing reliance on imported minerals and metals vital to the US economy.

Cobb described in detail the substantial regulatory burden that makes U.S. mineral mining among the most heavily regulated industries in the world. “Mining on the public lands is a pervasively regulated enterprise with a vast range of federal, state and local environmental laws and regulations governing mineral exploration, development and reclamation,” said Cobb. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded after careful study in 1999 that the existing regulatory framework was “generally effective” in ensuring environmental protection and cautioned against imposing one-size-fits-all standards on mining operations that typically vary widely.

Cobb added that the federal land management agencies have since strengthened their regulatory programs. For example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) now requires financial guarantees for all mining and exploration activities, regardless of size, before permits are approved. In addition, both agencies may require the establishment of a trust fund or similar mechanism to ensure the continuation of long-term reclamation for meeting water quality standards.

The additional costs and uncertainty of prescriptive standards will greatly damage the industry’s ability to attract new investment to a country already costly for mineral mining operations. Cobb explained that despite reserves of 78 important mined minerals, “the US attracts only 7% of the worldwide exploration dollars.” Consequently, he said, “our nation is becoming more dependent on foreign sources to meet our metal and minerals requirements, even for minerals with adequate domestic resources.” The serious implications from this growing mineral dependency are exacerbated, said Cobb, by competition from the surging economies of countries such as China and India.

Cobb noted that, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, America now depends on imports for more than half of 45 mineral commodities, a reliance that aggravates the nation’s balance of payments, mineral price volatility and leads to domestic supply disruptions due to political or military instability.