First Metal Mining, Then More?

The Trump Administration Endeavors to Lift Uranium Mining Ban Near Grand Canyon.

In a report released on Nov. 1 entitled “USDA Final Report Pursuant to Executive Order 13783 on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” the United States Forest Service (which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) ordered a review of regulations impacting the energy industry, including considering withdrawing the 20-year uranium moratorium currently in effect in the watershed of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

The Obama administration instituted a ban of all new hardrock mining in the area in 2012 to address concerns that uranium mining would pollute the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon and its watershed, which provide water to approximately 25 million people. More than 1 million acres of National Forest and Bureau of Land Management land is subject to the ban, which did not affect existing mining claims.

Since its inception, the ban has been controversial, with various industry groups and Republicans arguing that the ban places unnecessary restrictions upon the production and use of domestic energy and hampers economic growth. President Obama considered protecting the area as a national monument, an act that would have permanently prevented mining, but Obama ultimately did not do so.

This decision to review the ban is a response to President Trump’s March 18, 2017, executive order, entitled the “Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” which requires agencies such as the Forest Service to review all actions and restrictions that potentially burden domestic energy production, including nuclear energy resources. Nuclear power plants use uranium as fuel.

In order to modify or withdraw the ban, Public Land Order 7787 would be revised to allow for new hardrock mining development in the area. What exactly the modification or withdrawal would entail is not clear. It is possible the duration of the ban, currently set to expire in 2032, could be dialed back, or the acreage covered by the ban could be reduced. The Forest Service report is vague on the details.

The ban withdrawal would not occur in the near future, as the Forest Service has proposed a three-year timeline for revising the ban. The agency noted in its report that reversing the ban could involve costs to re-examine mineral data, evaluate potential withdrawal boundary changes, and complete the environmental analysis and public notice requirements for such a decision, which suggests that the agency recognizes it would need to utilize the same type of environmental review process to modify or overturn the mining ban as it did for implementing it.

That process would involve an opportunity for public comment. Further, environmental groups would likely institute legal proceedings in the court system to block any attempted modification or withdrawal of the ban, slowing down agency efforts.

Environmental groups argue that any lifting of the ban will be futile, as existing uranium mines will not be profitable due to rock-bottom global uranium prices. And, they argue, even if the market rebounds, lifting the ban would not benefit taxpayers since, under the General Mining Act of 1872, the federal government cannot collect royalties on minerals such as uranium. Proponents of the measure view it as an important step towards continued energy independence and growth.

The Forest Service’s recommendation is one of 15 actions the Forest Service is taking in response to Trump’s executive order. Regardless, the move by the Trump administration does not come as a surprise to parties on both sides of the fence given the President’s sustained promise to kick-start traditional energy sources and remove restrictions targeted at reducing global warming.

This action has the potential to impact metals mining, however, other mining initiatives on national lands could see the benefits of the executive order in the future as well.

Megan Caldwell is an environmental attorney in the Denver, Colorado, office of Husch Blackwell. She can be reached at

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