Green Watch

Strategic Minerals: Environmentalist Cabal

Environmentalists put America’s vast mineral wealth off limits, ceding our future to China


Read the previous installment of “Strategic Minerals” here.

Summary: The United States is a treasure trove of mineral resources. But attempts by the left-wing federal bureaucrats to limit mining by closing off public lands in the name of “conservation” threaten our prosperity – and our security.

Environmentalist Opposition and Overregulation

In the past few years, activists have actually been moving away from expensive environmental litigation and other forms of obstructionism, though this doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned their fundamental opposition to mineral mining. Instead, they’ve found it advantageous to directly prod federal agencies, the EPA in particular, to exact an undue and corrupting influence over the permit approval process.

Consider the recent example of environmental opposition to developing the proposed Pebble mine project in southwest Alaska. Among the most significant metallic mineral deposits ever discovered, the Pebble mine contains an estimated 6.44 billion metric tons of copper, gold, molybdenum and silver.

The Pebble mine site is located on state lands that were secured in 1974 as part of a land swap with the federal government, specifically for its mineral potential. The site has since been designated through two public land-use planning processes for mineral exploration and development.

While developer Pebble Limited Partnership was pursuing a permit to develop the deposits, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used an obscure section of the Clean Water Act to derail the project. In a 2014 proposal, EPA’s Region 10 Seattle office wrote that it would seek to shut down the mining operation “because of the high ecological and economic value of the Bristol Bay watershed and the assessed unacceptable environmental effects that would result from such mining.”

Crucially, EPA released this proposal in advance of any formal permit application from the Pebble Partnership, effectively vetoing the mine project in its opening stages. The EPA “veto” was based on less information than would have been included, considered, and vetted by stakeholders in the NEPA process. EPA’s unprecedented action was widely perceived to be both outside the law and a reflection of corrupt environmentalist influence on the agency decision-making process. Nevertheless, EPA is facing pressure to intervene preemptively in a number of similar cases.

Here are a few examples: an iron ore mine in the aptly named Iron County, Wisconsin, is being challenged by the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa because it might harm tribal wild rice beds; an environmental group in Minnesota is aiming to kill a nickel-platinum-palladium mine in the northeastern part of the state because this is a popular wilderness vacation destination; a planned nickel mine in Oregon near a tributary of the Smith River is facing an EPA veto, ostensibly to protect fish stocks.

All of these mining projects are still in the initial planning stage and have not progressed through the normal NEPA consideration process used for decision making: “What these projects have in common is that none has put forward an actual mine plan,” says Daniel McGroarty of the American Resources Policy Network (ARPN). “This action would trigger a thorough mine review as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. For more than 40 years NEPA has defined a process by which a mine plan is evaluated. Under the law, every one of the concerns raised by opponents to the Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Oregon mines would be aired publicly, examined by scientists and a range of technical experts, before approval is granted or denied. Now, using the Pebble mine as precedent, anti-mining activists are urging the EPA to ignore NEPA and bar mining projects with no review necessary.”

Federal Land Withdrawal

Another pernicious obstacle to domestic mineral development is the increasing withdrawal of public lands from development. Vast tracts of public lands have been withdrawn from entry to mineral exploration, leasing, mining, and other similar activities. A number of excuses have been mustered to explain this withdrawal to the public, including designation of wilderness areas, national monuments, habitat preservation, and military use.

The Obama administration dramatically increased land withdrawals through an abuse of the Antiquities Act, seeking to satisfy the anti-mining and anti-drilling agenda of the environmentalist cabal. He used the act a record 29 times to establish or expand national monuments. Obama was also the first president to use the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to withdraw coastal areas from mineral leasing activities.

The Obama administration dramatically increased land withdrawals through an abuse of the Antiquities Act, seeking to satisfy the anti-mining and anti-drilling agenda of the environmentalist cabal.

The Trump administration has been confronted by major land withdrawals rushed through at the close of the previous administration and now under review. One egregious example is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposal to protect the greater sage grouse and its sagebrush habitat.

If enacted, BLM would restrict federal land from future mining operations on 10 million acres in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. These sites would be declared off limits to exploration and mining in favor of habitat preservation. The National Mining Association (NMA) is opposed to this massive land withdrawal. They assert it would damage mining industry jobs and revenue and further restrict access to critical minerals. This last point is crucial, considering that western states account for 75 percent of U.S. metals mining and that half of the nation’s federal hardrock minerals are already off limits for minerals development. A final decision to enact the greater sage-grouse withdrawal will definitely increase our mineral import dependence.

Blanket withdrawals of mining rights are usually irreversible. Environmentalists and government agencies fail to acknowledge cumulative effects on future access to mineral resources. Withdrawals no longer conform to the classic “conservation ethic” on which our public lands policies were first founded. In fact, the environmentalist cabal pushes for federal land withdrawals in areas where known or suspected mineral deposits are located to prevent their eventual mining!

Withdrawing mega-acreages that contain important minerals can create artificial shortages and greatly increase imports, as has been the case in the domestic minerals market for at least the past three decades. Another hidden consequence plagues land withdrawals: Americans will probably never know the full extent of mineral resources located in the public domain, as detailed geologic mapping, evaluation, and exploration are usually prohibited on withdrawn lands.

But what if the sum total of all U.S. mineral wealth could be suddenly deposited in a “mineral bank savings account”? Sadly, under current conditions, the U.S. government would have no way to examine this deposit, and in any case, would not be able to determine the “balance” of the nation’s minerals savings—the true amount obfuscated by hundreds of land withdrawals involving many millions of acres.

Federal land withdrawals present the “ultimate resource challenge” to our economy. They beg the question: has the U.S. government already withdrawn so much land from exploration and mining as to preclude future supplies of badly needed key domestic minerals? The answer can’t be known, but the impact of withdrawals on the mining industry is obvious and substantial.

Conservation Versus Preservation

The federal government manages 640 million acres of land, roughly 28 percent of the United States. More than 90 percent of those holdings are in 12 Western states, and contain mineral deposits of substantial economic significance—especially Alaska, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Nevada—where most of the land is federal.

Unfortunately, approximately 390 million acres of land is no longer accessible for mineral exploration, and 520 million acres are not open under the mineral leasing laws of the U.S. That’s almost one thousand million acres—a billion acres!

These land withdrawals reflect the longstanding debate between the “conservation” versus “preservation” of our natural (mineral) resources. The conservationist ethic of managing public lands in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century held that the public resources are to serve the public good. In his memoir, Gifford Pinchot, the founding chief of the U.S. Forest Service defined conservation as, “the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.”

The conservation ethic implies good stewardship, while the preservation ethic has typically meant preventing development—known today known as “leave it in the ground.” Federal resource stewardship policies have tended over the years to abandon the conservation ethic in favor of out-and-out preservation, leaving nearly everything in the ground.


In the final installment of “Strategic Minerals,” we show why increasing access to important minerals and materials is critical for America’s future prosperity and national security.

Read the first installment of “Strategic Minerals” here, and catch the previous installment here.

Watch CRC’s short video on “America’s Underground Wealth” here:

Ned Mamula

Dr. Ned Mamula, a geoscientist, is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute’s Center for the Study of Science.
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