On second try, House approves Amodei’s bill to ease mining on federal lands

By: and - May 9, 2024 4:52 am

Earthworks in preparation for major construction of Thacker Pass scheduled to begin in the second half of 2024. (Photo: Lithium Americas corporate presentation, May 2024)

Nevada’s mining industry may soon get a reprieve after the Republican-controlled U.S. House passed industry-friendly legislation Wednesday, undoing a consequential court decision that restricted mining companies’ use of federal lands.

The Mining Regulatory Clarity Act of 2024 — introduced by Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei — passed on a 216-195 vote, reversing a vote last week to return the bill to committee.

The bill would allow mining companies to conduct mining support operations on federal lands without valuable mineral deposits, including road maintenance, transmission lines, pipelines, and the construction of any other support facility needed at a mining site.

“Securing our domestic mineral supply chain is not only critical to our nation’s economic success, but to our national security. Now more than ever, we must ensure we are doing all that we can to increase domestic mineral production and protect the ability to conduct responsible mining activities on federal lands,” said Amodei in a statement.

Mining developers in Nevada have had to grapple with the aftermath of a 2022 federal appeals court ruling that imposed a stricter interpretation of the 150-year-old General Mining Law, restricting mining companies from using federal lands without valuable mineral deposits for mining related purposes.

Prior to the federal appeals court decision, mining companies used neighboring federal lands without valuable mineral deposits for mining related purposes – such as waste rock disposal or running power lines – without issue for decades.

The ruling — known as the “Rosemont decision” — blocked an Arizona mining project from dumping waste rock on U.S. Forest Service land. The court ruled that while federal mining law allows companies to mine on federal land where economically valuable minerals are present, they are not guaranteed the right to use federal land without valuable minerals as a dumping site.

Despite support from Arkansas Republican and House Natural Resource Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman, the bill faced some hurdles last week when six members of Amodei’s own party joined Democrats to block a bill.

Lawmakers did not make changes to the bill between the May 1 vote and Wednesday, but the presence of several Republicans who were absent last week allowed the measure to pass on the second attempt.

Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota, who chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources and led Republican floor debate Wednesday, called the bill a benefit to domestic mining interests and a correction of the Rosemont decision.

 “This is a simple fix,” Stauber said. “We believe the court erred, so it’s our job to legislate.”

During floor debate Wednesday, New Mexico Democrat Melanie Stansbury called the bill a giveaway to mining companies, including those based in China and other countries.

“Why the heck are we back on the House floor one week after we voted on a bipartisan basis to send this bad bill back to committee?” Stansbury said on the House floor.

Not all Democrats in Congress oppose Amodei’s bill, which opponents have described as a corporate giveaway. While Nevada Democratic Reps. Dina Titus and Susie Lee voted against the measure, Nevada Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford was one of eight Democrats who voted for the legislation.

And Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto Wednesday praised House approval of the the bill, and called for the Senate to move quickly on companion  legislation she and Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch introduced in the Senate. Nevada Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen is also a cosponsor of the Senate companion bill, along with Senate Republicans Mike Crapo of Idaho and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

“Without a fix, the Rosemont decision could upend existing and future mining projects, threatening thousands of jobs in Nevada and across the West. I’ll continue to stand up for our communities and for our clean energy future,” said Cortez Masto in a statement.

Cortez Masto has argued that restricting mining companies from using public land that does not contain economically valuable minerals for waste storage or processing is “misguided.”

Some conservation groups warned that the broad scope of the legislation is alarming and could make room for speculative mining claims on public lands without a documented mineral deposit.

“This bill would create a free-for-all on public lands, with speculators able to file claims even when there are no valuable minerals present,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Nevada is at the epicenter of a huge mining boom right now, and our public lands need strengthened protections. Instead this bill aims to unleash the mining industry, with devastating consequences for Nevada’s wildlife and communities.”

In Nevada, the Rosemont decision has proved consequential to the mining industry, which enjoys broad use of public lands under the 150-year-old General Mining Law, unlike other extractive industries. 

In the case of a planned molybdenum mine by Nevada-based developer Eureka Moly LLC, a district court judge vacated the 2019 Bureau of Land Management’s approval of the project after ruling the developer did not have the right to dump waste rock on federal land without valuable mineral deposits.

The new stricter interpretation of the 150-year-old General Mining Law under the federal appeals court ruling also affects what may potentially become the largest lithium mine in the United States, the Thacker Pass project south of the Nevada-Oregon border. Last year, a district judge cited the Arizona ruling when determining that federal land managers violated federal law when they approved the mine developer’s plan to bury 1,300 acres of public land under waste rock.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies.

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.