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Interior nominee Haaland could use spotlight to advocate for mining law overhaul

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Nominee for Secretary of Interior, Congresswoman Deb Haaland, speaks after President-elect Joe Biden announced his climate and energy appointments at the Queen theater on Dec. 19, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.
Source: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images News via Getty Images

In nominating the potential first Native American secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., President-elect Joe Biden also elevated a potential torchbearer for an effort by certain Congress members to overhaul U.S. mining laws.

Haaland was co-chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, a perch from which she joined with other Democrats to push for changing national hard-rock mining laws for the first time since 1872. Passage of the 1872 law, the General Mining Act, initially led to a boon in mineral development in the U.S. West, but critics say its mineral claimant system has become outdated. Under the law, hard-rock mining companies do not pay federal royalties on their operations, and as a result the U.S. government does not collect data on the availability of locatable minerals.

Southwestern lawmakers including Haaland introduced a bill in May 2019 that would establish a royalty rate between 5% and 8% for hard-rock mining operations and require the government to allocate a portion of the funding for reclaiming abandoned mines. The Democrats' bill was passed from the Natural Resources Committee in August; as the current Congress nears completion, there are slim odds the bill will get a full vote of the U.S. House.

At the Interior Department, Haaland would have the megaphone of the bully pulpit, heading an agency that advocated for similar reforms under the Obama administration. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she would oversee administration for hundreds of millions of acres of public lands and subsurface mineral rights, including some of the land most sought after by mining companies. She would oversee mine reclamation and the federal process for collecting and delivering royalties on fossil fuel production.

So far, mining industry representatives have not commented on Haaland's background. "We're going to pass," National Mining Association spokesperson Conor Bernstein said in an email to S&P Global Market Intelligence. "We don't want to pre-judge those interactions and we look forward to educating the new administration about our priorities for the future and how we feel mining can contribute to building back better."

The effort to overhaul mining laws in the U.S. House of Representatives has been led by House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. Grijalva has previously said any deal on mining legislation under Biden would require changes to the General Mining Act.

When asked whether his committee and Haaland would continue an effort under Trump to shore up domestic mineral sources, Grijalva told Market Intelligence that he expects himself and his colleagues to prioritize the protection of national landmarks and the environment.

"You have to look at how you do a qualitative assessment of the taxpayers' holdings in land and water, and what are those areas that need to be protected in perpetuity versus how they are now," Grijalva said Dec. 21. "That's the clear issue."

Environmentalists allied with the campaign to reform mining laws have praised the Haaland nomination. They also see an effort by the Trump administration to modify minerals regulations as providing precedent for Biden to do the same, but in the direction of their policy preferences.

"We hope that Ms. Haaland will help shape those proposals into ones that are more just and equitable and fair, and more respectful of tribal consultation and resources," Earthworks senior policy counsel Aaron Mintzes said in an interview. "I'm always optimistic. I'm really looking forward to the Biden-Harris administration and Ms. Haaland's leadership at Interior."

Haaland's biggest obstacle will be a Republican-controlled Senate if the opposing party wins the twin Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 6. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming is the Republican lawmaker expected to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would oversee her nomination. Barrasso has previously called for updating the 1872 mining law, but opposed a 2009 effort at legislative overhaul backed by the Obama administration.

As Jan. 6 approaches, Barrasso has been part of the Republican Party's pitch to Georgia voters for control of the Senate so it can be a check on a Biden administration.

"If you want accountability and not just a rubber stamp for a Joe Biden cabinet, you need to have people like me as chairman of the Energy committee," Barrasso said during a Dec. 20 appearance on "Fox News Sunday."

"It's not going to be a garden party if Republicans are in the majority," Barrasso said. "These nominees are going to have to run the gauntlet."