County commish to back mining reform in testimony on the Hill

Gunnison County Commissioner Jim Starr will be among the witnesses testifying Thursday before a House subcommittee debating a bill that would reform the 1872 Mining Law enacted during the Ulysses S. Grant administration, which to date has not issued a statement opposing the move.

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will tackle H.R. 699, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009, which, among other things, would require royalty payments from mining companies extracting gold, uranium and other hard-rock minerals from federally owned public lands in the West. Incredibly, they’d been charged nothing since 1872.

President Grant was looking for more miners to “go west, young man,” because no one can settle a wilderness like a drunken mountain man with a pick axe, but now multinational corporations are enjoying a royalty-free ride when the price of minerals is skyrocketing. And the West has pretty much been settled.

According to the Pew Environmental Trust, citing stats from the Congressional Budget Office, more than $1 billion in “non-coal metals” are mined from public lands ever year without any royalty payments to federal or state governments. The coal, oil and gas industries, by contrast, pay significant royalties, and many people would like to see those raised.

The House last session passed a similar measure to change the 137-year-old law, but it died in the Senate. This time around, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has said he will support such reform.

The debate is particularly timely given the rising price of gold, which is around $1,000 an ounce — apparently a better bet than real estate or the stock market these days.

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