Public Issues at the National Level: A Report from the Public Issues Committee – 2001

Title: Public Issues at the National Level: A Report from the Public Issues Committee

Author: Larry Anna, Chairman

Publication: The Outcrop, December 2001, p. 16-17

Summary of Hearings on Mining Law and Regulatory Reform

Recently, the House Resources Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing to discuss the $100 mining claim fee and $25 location fee collected by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Testimony claimed that miners are discontinuing use of public lands because overlapping regulations and fees make most operations unprofitable. The remaining mineral deposits on public land are often lower grade and larger in extent than the more obvious deposits mined in the past. In contrast, there was testimony that the claim maintenance fee is akin to the royalties paid by fossil resource industries extracting minerals from public lands and that the fee is the only way that taxpayers benefit from the extraction of minerals from BLM land. According to the Mineral Policy Center, the recent drop off in mining claims is a reflection of low mineral prices, not a response to the mining claim fee. Information gathered in this oversight hearing will help the committee decide whether or not to extend the mining claim fee as it exists, repeal it, or refine it in light of the fact that it is set to expire on September 30.

Fossils and Public Lands (10-23-01)

The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, H.R. 2974, was introduced by Rep. James P. McGovern (D-MA) to provide for the protection of paleontological resources on federal lands. McGovern described the bill as promoting science and learning and did not think anyone could possibly oppose it. On May 15, 2001, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt released a congressionally mandated report on federal fossil policy, available at http://www.doi.gov/fossil/fossilreport. htm.

On October 25, 1999, the Department of the Interior (DOI) released a draft version of its congressionally mandated report, Assessment of Fossil Management on Federal and Indian Lands. Eight federal agencies helped develop the report. The report uses “basic principles” as the basis for recommendations regarding the development of future legislation governing the treatment of fossils on public lands.

The issue of fossil collecting on public lands continues to be a contentious subject among paleontologists, federal land managers, professional societies, amateur fossil collectors, commercial fossil interests, and academia. Under current USFS and BLM regulations, recreational and scientific collection of invertebrate fossils and petrified wood does not require a permit, but collection of vertebrate fossils is restricted. The proposed legislation would expand the right of amateur collectors to collect fossils on certain public lands and for the first time extend that right to commercial collectors. Opponents of the legislation contend that commercial collectors are only interested in the most valuable specimens, and in their removal, would damage less economically valuable but scientifically important fossils. Others claim that unskilled collectors could damage valuable fossils or remove them thereby making fossils unavailable for scientific investigation. Amateur and commercial collectors point out that members of their communities have discovered many valuable fossil assemblages. All attendees thoroughly agreed that some form of legislation is necessary for uniformity within the federal establishment, and to allow fuller access to public lands, but there remains significant disagreement concerning the details.

Hearing to receive testimony on H.R. 2952, the Powder River Basin Resources
Development Act

On October 11th, the House Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral
Resources held a hearing on H.R. 2952, the Powder River Basin Resource
Development Act, a bill introduced by Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Cubin
(R-WY). This bill would establish a process for resolving disputes between developers
of coal and developers of coal bed methane (CBM) in parts of the Wyoming portion of the Powder River Basin (PRB). The BLM has issued both federal coal leases and federal oil and gas leases for the same location in PRB, which has created problems as CBM development progresses. CBM operators’ senior leases allow them to stall coal mining operations until the coal miners provide adequate monetary compensation for lost production. Cubin’s legislation gives coal companies more bargaining power on this “uneven playing field.”

Peabody Energy Corporation stressed the idea that coal production from the PRB is critically important to the U.S. as an economic issue and as a domestic energy security issue. Peabody Energy and the National Mining Association (NMA) support federal intervention in the form of legislation (H.R. 2952) to stop oil and gas developers who seek unreasonable compensation from coal miners who cannot afford extended negotiations or prolonged litigation. Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS) and RIM Operating, Inc. were opposed to H.R. 2952 and stated that the bill “effectively grants coal producers the right to condemn, vent and waste CBM and to deduct the costs of condemnation from payments of their federal coal royalties.” IPAMS is against the legislation because it sets a poor precedent for resolving resource conflicts, it encourages waste of the CBM, it does not provide for full compensation to CBM operators for the loss of their resource, and it is constitutionally flawed.

Update on Earthquake Policy (9-12-01)

Natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, volcanoes, and fires occur everywhere, and the losses associated with these events cross state lines without discretion. Similarly, activities related to the mitigation of the effects of natural disasters are divided among many committees in Congress. As a result, funding for research of phenomena and loss mitigation projects comes from many federal programs. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced the Earthquake Loss Reduction Act of 2001 (S.424). According to Feinstein’s press release, the legislation aims to “provide a number of incentives, including grants and tax credits, in order to encourage responsible state and local governments, individuals, and businesses to invest in damage prevention measures before an earthquake strikes.” The bill uses tax credits and bond measures to encourage the private sector to invest in seismic retrofitting. It also establishes a grant fund for local governments, hospitals, and schools to make building improvements and develop earthquake recovery plans.

High-level Nuclear Waste Legislation Update

Spent nuclear fuel is presently stored at eighty-one commercial reactor facilities around the country. Defense related high-level nuclear waste and spent fuel are stored at Department of Energy (DOE) sites around the country. DOE proposes to transport much of this waste from these widely dispersed sites to the Yucca Mountain repository in southern Nevada, slated to open in 2010. Meanwhile, the cost of temporary storage for utility companies and states is accruing as additional spent fuel continues to be produced. Interim storage of high level nuclear waste has become a contentious issue on Capitol Hill. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) required that DOE remove waste from the commercial reactor sites by 1998. The deadline was not met and consequently several utilities have brought lawsuits against the federal government to recoup the cost of waste storage beyond this date. Congress has tried to pass legislation to build a temporary centralized storage facility for high-level nuclear waste adjacent to the proposed permanent repository at Yucca Mountain. Such legislation failed to pass in the last three Congresses, lacking the votes in the Senate to override a threatened presidential veto.

The Department of Energy (DOE) sought public comments to aid Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham in making a recommendation to President Bush concerning the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. Comment deadline was September 20, 2001. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham is expected to make the formal recommendation later this year for President Bush to move ahead in the licensing process for Yucca Mountain.

A decision by the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) has brought the proposed nuclear repository on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah closer to becoming reality. The $3.1 billion facility would be large enough to hold all of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel until a permanent DOE repository is constructed.

Information in this report was taken in part from AGI website: http://www.agiweb.org/gap/gaphome.html

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