(Emily Larsen, Liberty Headlines) After dramatic losses worth billions of dollars, the mining industry in the United States may get some relief from radical Obama-era environmental regulations which prolonged the slump.
The Trump administration is poised to eliminate (or try to eliminate) regulations which dramatically restricted the public lands from energy development to protect a bird species, and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan rule which threatened 25 percent of coal energy production.
Mined minerals and substances are in nearly every modern item Americans use daily, such as phones, computers, cars, and light bulbs. Construction materials like concrete, steel, and copper all rely on the mining industry. Coal is the most-mined substance in the United States, to fuel power plants. The US is the second-largest producer of coal, accounting for 17 percent of production worldwide. As the Department of Energy notes, mined substances “are essential to nearly every aspect of our lives and our economy.”
But the worldwide mining industry lost 73 percent of its value since 2011—a whopping $1.4 trillion. Low prices due to oversupply are largely to blame. Bloomberg explains:
“Gluts of everything from iron ore to copper are the main challenge for the industry. China’s slowest economic growth in a generation has led to oversupplies of metals, and for that, the industry is largely to blame….The big cost of environmental cleanups after closing a mine is preventing closures and prolonging the downturn.”
Because running a mine is a gigantic operation, federal, state, and local regulations are in place to ensure worker safety and prevent biohazards. Abandoned mines can leak acid into rivers. While hundreds of miners used to die every year in the 20th century, there have been fewer than 50 deaths per year since 2011.
But in recent decades, particularly with the Obama administration, regulations to limit mining have mostly focused on radical environmental reasons, rather than to improve safety or addressing biohazards of harmful substances in the soil, air, and water.
In June 2016 the Bureau of Land Management removed 10 million acres from any mining activity, in the name of protecting the threatened sage grouse bird. Environmentalists say impacts from energy development harm the unique-looking animal’s range and habitat, and other animals in the ecosystem rely on the bird as a food source.
“The [sage grouse regulations] will have a devastating impact on access to public lands, the economies of the western states, and the ability of our Nation to produce the strategic and critical minerals required for national defense, manufacturing and economic prosperity,” said the American Exploration and Mining Association in a statement.
The Trump administration is likely to reverse this policy. But a rule reversal will not happen quickly.
“Amending land-use plans requires a lengthy analysis and public comment period,” and the process “would take years and likely stretch well past Trump’s first term in office,” according to Science magazine.
Numerous agencies create and enforce laws and regulations that affect mines, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement within the Department of the Interior, the Mine Safety and Health Administration within the Department of Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency. More than three dozen major federal laws and regulations shape how mining is conducted, including the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Federal Mine Safety Health Act. State and local laws put further restraints on the industry.
Because coal is the most-mined substance in the United States, many of the regulations which hurt the mining industry have more to do with coal energy than with the actual act of mining the coal. The National Mining Association runs an entire campaign called “Count on Coal” to counter coal power regulations.
The Clean Power Plan implemented by the EPA in 2015 is another Obama-era environmental regulation that would harm the mining industry, particularly coal. The plan would perpetually force 25 percent of low-cost coal generation off the power grid, and raise electricity costs an estimated $680 per household per year, according to the National Mining Association.
The Clean Power Plan rule is expected to be eliminated by President Trump. He ordered the EPA to review the rule in March.
While becoming US energy independent is a major policy driver, there is little-to-no emphasis on US reliance on other countries for mineral commodities. In 1954, the United States was fully reliant on foreign sources for only 8 mineral commodities. In 2016, it depended on foreign sources for 20 mineral commodities. Not only could any interruption in the flow have an immediate effect on US industry; This dependence also poses foreign policy issues.
“Some minerals that the United States depends on are produced in, or must pass through, areas that have political stability issues. In addition, some minerals that the United States relies on are produced in areas that have historically opposed the United States in other political arenas,” according to the United States Geological Survey.
Congress is taking steps to try to deal with the environmental and economic burden of unused mines. The RECLAIM Act would help communities clean up and redevelop abandoned mine lands. It would release $1 billion in the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation fund to local communities. Part of the funds would be used to address the environmental issues from abandoned mines, and the other part would let communities decide how to diversity their industries.
While Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) both advocate for the RECLAIM Act, they are careful to note that “regulatory relief is critical” to the mining jobs that already exist.
Between new approaches to the economic development of mines and reducing the regulatory burden, the future may be brighter for the industry. The mining industry added 9,000 jobs in April.