It’s Time to Update our Mining Laws for a Clean Energy Future

Demand for critical minerals is rising. We must ensure we can meet it in a secure and sustainable way.

The Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona are the proposed site of a copper mine.
The Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona contain sacred places and cultural sites that are important to several local tribes. They are also the proposed site of a copper mine.(Alan Schmierer / Flickr)

This page was published 2 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

There is a way to electrify our cars, trucks, and buses without replicating the toxic burdens that our current energy system imposes on certain communities. In fact, there’s an obvious place to start: Reform the U.S. law that has allowed the mining industry to pollute freely for a century and a half.

We know that to save our planet from the climate crisis and insulate ourselves from volatile energy prices, we must rapidly build out electric vehicles, charging infrastructure, solar panels, and wind turbines to power our communities to a clean energy future. We know this transition depends on critical minerals like lithium and cobalt, which are in the batteries that power electric vehicles and store clean energy.

With critical mineral demand expected to rise by up to 500% by 2050 to power electronics (like laptops and cellphones) and clean energy technologies, we need to ensure we can meet that demand in a secure and sustainable way. We have a chance to do what the fossil fuel industry never did by setting out from the start to protect the communities and places most impacted by clean energy development. Critical minerals come from mining, though in many cases they can be reused once obtained. Like the oil and gas industry, mining operations have destroyed precious environmental and sacred spaces while leaving behind toxic pollution that poisons our air, water, and land.

Updating our laws and regulations is part of the sustainable solutions needed to meet the demands for critical minerals and ensure that our clean energy future isn’t built on a foundation of dirty mining.

While we must try to meet critical minerals demand through reducing, reusing, and recycling existing materials, we understand that some mining must occur to get us to that clean energy future. That’s why we’re working to reform our mining laws and regulations to meet the demands of the future by avoiding some of the most egregious harms to communities and the environment in the process.

What’s wrong with current mining regulations?

For 150 years, the Mining Law of 1872 has regulated mining operations on over 350 million acres of public lands — territory that the public owns, but the government stewards for the good of the people. Many of these lands have played an essential role in tribal communities’ livelihoods and cultural practices since long before European settlers arrived.

Originally passed during the gold rush boom, when the American Government sought to “settle” the West and forcibly remove Indigenous people from their land, the Mining Law of 1872 has remained virtually unchanged since then.

Compared to other extractive industries like oil and gas, mining companies receive even more of a sweetheart deal under the law at the expense of U.S. taxpayers, Indigenous communities, and environmental protections.

The current law prioritizes mining above all other land uses — even for iconic natural landscapes and Indigenous sacred sites — and allows mining companies to proceed with dirty extractive processes without strong environmental protections or consultation with tribal communities. When these companies have extracted all the resources they can, the current law fails to hold them accountable for cleaning up rampant pollution, leaving behind a legacy of toxic waste that poisons communities for generations.

How can we improve mining operations?

While building out the clean energy infrastructure of the future, the United States has the opportunity to set a gold standard for the most environmentally friendly, pro-worker mining operations possible. That foundation begins with robust community engagement, strong environmental protections, and intentional tribal consultation with Indigenous communities to protect sacred sites and cultural resources. Good mining reform must include:

  • Protections for Special Places: Some places are too special to mine, and current law leaves too many iconic American landscapes and Indigenous sacred lands without protections from mining interests. Reforms must give land managers the ability to choose other land uses like conservation, outdoor recreation, and historic preservation over a potential mining project that could irreparably harm land and cultural resources.
  • Strong Environmental Protections: Mining companies are under no obligation to mine responsibly with minimal environmental impacts under the current law. They can pollute the land, air, and water around them and leave taxpayers on the hook to clean up the mess. New reforms must hold mining companies accountable through strong industry-specific environmental standards.
  • Fair Compensation to Taxpayers: The 150-year-old sweetheart deal that has prevented mining companies from paying a royalty on the resources they extract from our public lands must end. The minerals found on public lands belong to all of us, and reforms must provide a fair return to taxpayers.
  • Inspection, Enforcement, and Bonding Provisions: Reforms must require frequent inspections and provide federal agencies with the enforcement mechanisms to impose fines and violations and deny new mining permits to companies with repeated patterns of abuse. Historically bad actors cannot continue to exploit the system to the detriment of mining impacted communities.
  • A Dedicated Mine Reclamation Fund: Over 500,000 abandoned mines litter the country and pose major dangers to public health and safety. We need an Abandoned Mine Fund to locate, identify, and reclaim abandoned mines to protect precious water resources and those living in the surrounding communities.

What are Congress and the Biden administration doing?

House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) have recognized the importance of updating our mining laws and regulations to the 21st century and introduced the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act. The bill would update the mining law of 1872 to include strong environmental and community protections for local communities, respect tribal sovereignty throughout the mining exploration, planning, and extraction process, and ensure that taxpayers are fairly compensated for minerals extracted on public lands.

At the same time, the Biden administration has announced an Interagency Working Group to begin the process of reforming federal mining regulations. This is a first step towards establishing strong responsible mining standards that protect the environment, public health, and cultural resources. The group is currently taking comments from the public, which will influence its reform recommendations.

What is Earthjustice doing?

Earthjustice currently represents numerous tribes across the country fighting dirty mining operations that threaten their sacred lands and cultural resources. Read these stories from our clients to learn more about what’s at stake in reforming mining law and regulations:

What can you do?

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.