It’s Time to Put the 1872 Mining Law Out of Its Misery

August 2022

By Jason Vaughn

The 1872 Mining Law, covering mineral extraction on public lands, is old. Absurdly old. Some might even say comically old—except that the impacts still being felt some 150 years after it was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant aren’t the least bit funny.

Abandoned mining pit on BLM land. (Photo: Bureau of Land

Abandoned mining pit on BLM land. (Photo: Bureau of Land

The law allows for the extraction of “hardrock” minerals like gold, silver, copper, lithium, uranium, and others from federal public lands—lands owned by the American public—without requiring the payment of any sort of royalties to the federal government beyond a miniscule claim fee (currently set at $125 per claim).

This is an incredibly one-sided deal that economically favors mining companies. It’s estimated that roughly $300 billion in royalty-free minerals has been extracted from public lands over the past 150 years. And, it’s been an unmitigated disaster for taxpayers who are left on the hook to clean up the environmental damage left behind by decades of mining operations.

The impact has been especially felt by Indigenous and front-line communities in terms of wrecked landscapes, poor air quality, and diminished or destroyed water resources. But, at long last, there are some positive steps being taken to address mining law. In February, at the urging of numerous conservation and Tribal organizations, the Biden administration created an interagency working group—led by the Department of Interior (DOI)—that is looking into ways to strengthen the Bureau of Land Management’s rules regarding hardrock mining.

And after decades of stalled efforts, there is some actual momentum in Congress toward changing this deeply antiquated and unjust law. U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, has introduced the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act (H.R. 7580), which would create several new requirements for mining companies on public land, including a 4-8% royalty on hardrock mining, and new mineral exploration and mining operation environmental requirements.

The Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act would also ban mining in wilderness study areas, areas designated as critical habitat for listed species, and tribal sacred sites.

This legislation has wide support from environmental and Indigenous groups, but faces a bumpy road ahead due to a concerted, multi-million dollar lobbying effort from mining and resource extraction groups. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV)—both recipients of large campaign contributions from the mining industry—have spoken out against mining law reform.

Reforming our nation’s mining laws makes good sense for environmentalists and, really, anyone who cares how their tax dollars are spent. Contact your Congressional delegation and tell them to bring our mining laws into the 21st Century by getting behind the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act!