The nation’s largest nuclear lobby last month urged President Donald Trump to lift restrictions on uranium mining on public land, a move that would greatly affect the Grand Canyon region.
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry trade association, wrote a letter on Aug. 20 to former National Security Adviser John Bolton and Director of National Economic Council Larry Kudlow. In that letter, NEI asked the president to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to spur more uranium production and create more nuclear energy infrastructure.
The DPA is an artifact of Cold War-era concerns over national security. The law was passed at the start of the Korean War to “meet the national security needs of the United States by granting the President powers to ensure the supply and timely delivery of products, materials, and services to military and civilian agencies,” according to the Federation of American Scientists.
A dramatic — albeit buried — recommendation in the NEI’s letter is to “lift current federal land withdrawal restrictions prohibiting access to high grade domestic uranium deposits” in order to pursue the administration’s Federal Strategy to Ensure a Reliable Supply of Critical Minerals, an executive order President Trump signed in late 2017.
The biggest public land withdrawal in Arizona was signed into effect in 2012 by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. This withdrawal prevents uranium mining on 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park until 2032.
The current interim head of the Bureau of Land Management, William Perry Pendley, sued the government on behalf of the mining industry over this withdrawal order in 2013. The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona ruled against Pendley’s client, the Northwest Mining Association, in that case.
Now, Pendley is head of the agency that manages two-thirds of the land his foundation sued to open for mining.
Trump’s 2017 executive order tasked agencies across the federal government to develop ways to reduce the nation’s vulnerability to critical mineral supply disruptions. This means ensuring domestic sources of critical minerals remain unimpeded, while also moving away from dependence on foreign minerals by incentivizing mining.
This directive is taken seriously by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who just last week penned an op-ed in The Washington Times titled “Energy security is national security” in which he decried the nation’s reliance on foreign sources of minerals. So far, Berhnardt’s approach to minerals is identical to the administration’s so-called ‘energy dominance’ agenda: open up public land to industry in order to reduce reliance on imports.
“Just as energy independence is fundamental to our nation’s security, reducing our dependence upon foreign countries for critical minerals is vital to our nation’s long-term interests,” Bernhardt wrote in the first line of his op-ed.
The Project on Government Oversight reported that Interior appointees went to work on critical minerals within the first weeks of Trump’s presidency. POGO’s report further found that mining industry influence began immediately following Trump’s inauguration.
“The documents POGO obtained offer a window into mining industry representatives’ efforts to influence the Interior Department’s development of the list beginning in the first month of the Administration and leading up to the President’s order for a new list,” according to the report.
In 2018, Interior released its list of 35 critical minerals, which Trump’s executive order defines as “(i) a non-fuel mineral or mineral material essential to the economic and national security of the United States, (ii) the supply chain of which is vulnerable to disruption, and (iii) that serves an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for our economy or our national security.”
A nuclear proliferation expert who spoke to Arizona Mirror questioned the inclusion of uranium on that list.
“We don’t need an enrichment capability for defense purposes. We really don’t need it. We are awash in enriched uranium. We stopped making any more the year after I was born,” Sharon Squassoni, a researcher at George Washington University and a member of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, told the Mirror.
Squassoni said the inclusion of uranium on the list is a thinly veiled attempt to justify energy subsidies by invoking the cause of national security.
“If they’re happy to take defense funds to build a wall between us and Mexico, they’ll be happy to take defense funds to do this,” she said, referring to the Pentagon’s recent reallocation of $3.6 billion to border wall construction.
Interior addressed criticisms it received regarding the inclusion of uranium during the comment period. Interior Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Timothy Petty wrote underneath the announcement of the list, “(T)he Department of the Interior recognizes that a significant number of comments requested the removal of uranium from the list … (U)ranium, while primarily known as a fuel mineral, also has important non-fuel uses, and otherwise meets the criteria for inclusion.”
Squassoni did not agree with that characterization of the mineral’s uses. “The non-fuel uses are miniscule,” she said.
U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva was an early critic of Interior’s list. In June, the Tucson Democrat introduced legislation to have uranium removed from the list. Grijalva has also expressed concern over the Grand Canyon land withdrawal. In February, he introduced a bill to permanently ban uranium mining on the land that is currently under executive withdrawal.
In response to Grijalva’s legislation, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, who represents much of the area under mineral withdrawal, accused the Democrat of working with Russian interests to help the country corner the uranium market.
The Grand Canyon and uranium mining
Former Interior Secretary Salazar issued the million-acre mineral withdrawal in 2012. His explicit rationale was to protect the Grand Canyon watershed and provide a period for scientific study of uranium mining’s effects.
At the time of the withdrawal order, there were about 3,200 hardrock mining claims in the area. None of these was affected by the withdrawal, which simply prevents new mining claims from being filed under the General Mining Act of 1872. About a third of the withdrawal is U.S. Forest Service land, and two-thirds is BLM land.
Obama’s BLM Director Bob Abbey said in Interior’s announcement of the withdrawal order, “The withdrawal … gives the Department a chance to monitor the impacts associated with uranium mining in this area. It preserves the ability of future decision-makers to make thoughtful decisions about managing this area of national environmental and cultural significance based on the best information available.”
At the time of the withdrawal, the uranium market had already hit a slump following something of a high in the late 2000s. In 2012, uranium went for $48 per pound, down from $140 per pound in 2007-2008.
Demand for uranium today is weak. The current market price for the commodity is about $25 per pound. This means producers are not going out of their way to expand uranium mining until demand for the mineral climbs.
Pre-withdrawal uranium mining activity in the Grand Canyon area is scant. A representative from the BLM’s Arizona Strip District Field Office said there isn’t a single mine producing ore in the withdrawal area.
The BLM officer said there are 600 mining claims but only four mines within the withdrawal area that predate the withdrawal. Only two of those four are operational.
“The Kanab North mine has been reclaimed (completed 2017); the Pinenut mine is currently undergoing reclamation; and the Arizona One and Canyon mines are on standby for production awaiting an increase in the price of uranium,” according to the field office spokesperson.
That Canyon Mine is a troubled mining project that became the subject of ire from environmentalists after the mine was severely flooded last year. The mine, after years in operation and a greater-than-projected impact on the local watershed, has yet to produce any uranium ore.
The reason has been attributed to the poor market demand for domestic uranium. According to Energy Fuels, the company that owns Canyon Mine, there is 2.43 million pounds of uranium available at the site. Until prices go up, Energy Fuels will let its equipment — and its mining claim — because extraction is not currently profitable.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler represented Energy Fuels prior to his appointment to Trump’s cabinet.
The Sierra Club and others took their complaints over Canyon Mine to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality last month. The groups said the mine’s effect on the local watershed exceeds the projections that were given in the original environmental impact statement.
“Importantly, these extraordinary conditions belie assumptions upon which the U.S. Forest Service and ADEQ predicated approvals of mining operations. These conditions—and those decisions—now threaten irretrievable harm to perched and deep aquifers and their associated human and environmental values. These circumstances preclude coverage under a general permit,” the groups’ Aug. 20 letter said.
Canyon Mine is a common story in Mohave and Coconino Counties, where nuclear boom-era mining claims stagnate, waiting for a troubled industry to be revived through government intervention. Northwest Arizona’s situation broadly reflects the national economic context in which NEI writes its letter to Trump’s advisers.
There is only one operating uranium mill in the entire U.S. — White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah. Like the Canyon Mine, it is owned by Energy Fuels.
Given the robustness of the U.S. enriched uranium supply, Squassoni said, removing public land withdrawals like the one around the Grand Canyon would be nonsensical.
“The notion that there’s this high-quality uranium there — it’s just not. When you look at global uranium resources, they’re all categorized by what it takes to recover them. When you look at those easy-to-recover resources, they are in Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan. It’s just not the U.S. It never was,” she said.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published its latest comprehensive report on the global uranium market in 2018. The “Uranium Red Book” is the universally recognized reference on global uranium resources, production and economics.
OECD’s 2018 report confirmed Squassoni’s opinion: The U.S. has very little uranium, and what reserves the nation does have are expensive to recover. In contrast, Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan and several African countries each have hundreds of thousands of tons of uranium.
“Why would you mine uranium in the Grand Canyon if you can avoid it?” said Squassoni.
An administration fond of rollbacks
NEI’s letter to Bolton is not the first time lobbyists have pushed to have public land withdrawals canceled. Trump has been a boon to the oil and gas industry by removing Obama-era public land withdrawals across the Western U.S.
These rollbacks have been more controversial due to Bernhardt’s leadership of Interior. A Center for American Progress report found Bernhardt to be the most conflicted cabinet appointee. Out of 27 former employers or clients Bernhardt named in his ethics forms disclosures, 20 have actively lobbied his department, including Ur-Energy, a uranium mining company.
As with many other of the administration’s deregulation efforts, the land withdrawal rollbacks have been met with resistance in the courts.
An federal judge in Alaska ruled in March that Trump overstepped executive authority when he canceled withdrawals for three federally managed offshore areas. The court ruled that, in those three instances, only Congress has the authority to repeal the withdrawals, not the president.
Although the idea of canceling Obama-era public land withdrawals is not new to Trump, the nuclear lobby’s letter marks one more step in an ongoing escalation of lobbying by uranium mining interests.
Earlier this year, Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy, another Canadian mining company, lobbied the president to force utility companies to purchase 25% of their uranium domestically instead of from big uranium exporter countries like Canada and Australia. A move like this would result in an immediate spike in uranium mining activity, while also fulfilling Trump’s directive to become less reliant on foreign mineral sources.
Environmental activists said they’ve been worried about the Grand Canyon region withdrawal since Trump’s inauguration, but that the NEI letter sharpens what they see as an impending threat to a natural wonder.
“We have been concerned about the mineral withdrawal ever since Trump became president, because it does seem like this administration enjoys doing favors for special interests,” Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, told the Mirror.
“Now, you have the fox guarding the hen hound,” she added, referring to the recent appointment of Pendley to head the BLM.
The mining industry, on the other hand, has said uranium mining in the area would not harm the local environment and that the withdrawn area would be an excellent source of the mineral.
“Secretary Salazar’s decision is particularly outrageous because one of his own agencies, the U.S. Geological Survey, estimates that the withdrawn lands contain uranium that, if mined to capacity, would generate electricity to power Los Angeles for 154 years,” Pendley said in 2012, according to Courthouse News Service.
At the time of that statement, Pendley’s legal foundation was representing the Northwest Mining Association in a suit against the government over the withdrawal, which the Association argued was unconstitutional.
Squassoni reiterated that there just isn’t enough accessible uranium in the region to compete with cheaper and higher-quality sources from abroad.
“It’s not by accident that we import 90% of our uranium needs. It’s not as if you’re going to open up this land, and a bunch of high-quality uranium will start flowing out of there.”