Archive for the ‘Mining’ Category

Bristol Bay Mine Proposal: A Slurry of Mixed Reactions

Photo by Aconcagua. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Aconcagua. Some rights reserved.

What’s in Alaska? Raymond Carver asked that question in his 1972 short story of the same name, and it sometimes feels like we still ask ourselves that very question down here in the lower 48 when pondering just what exactly is up there. Lots of bears, snow, Sarah Palin, fishing, logging, the Iditarod, rugged individualism, and more bears, right? Well okay, but add to that list a huge, hypothetical goldmine in southeastern Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

Yes, though it’s still only in the planning stage, a buried deposit of planned gold, copper and molybdenum near the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers is already turning heads in Washington. You see, the mine has the potential to (according to the Washington Post) “bring in 80 billion pounds of copper, 107 million ounces of gold, and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum,” but it would also cause the loss of “54 and 89 miles of streams and between four and seven square miles of wetlands” according to an EPA draft assessment from April of this year, and could in addition damage the habitats of the flourishing local salmon population, where nearly half of the world’s current sockeye salmon reside.

Advocates for building the mine (namely, the mining firms behind the project – Northern Dynasty and Anglo American) have been lobbying in Congress for the past decade trying to sway lawmakers over to their side, while many of the nearby Alaskan native tribes have teamed with local fishing companies and environmental groups to oppose the mine. With both sides investing significant amounts of money in lobbying (though between tribal leaders and mining moguls, you can probably guess who has more money to spend), the fight looks like it will end up being a close one (speculators are already eyeing Democratic Alaskan senator Mark Begich, who’s up for re-election in 2014, as a key voice in the matter), with volleys continuing from both sides – opponents have a poll that says 58% of Alaskans oppose the mine, advocates have an economic analysis that claims the mine would create 2,500 construction jobs.

The EPA hopes to finalize their assessment of the project this year, and it sounds like our President will eventually have some say in the matter (especially in the wake of his upcoming decision on Keystone XL, his opposition of the mine could be a strong move in winning over skeptical environmentalists who think he has perhaps gone soft on green issues).

More Fracking Squabbles in Wyoming

Photo by Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Natrona County District Judge Catherine Wilking dealt a blow to Wyoming denizens (Wyomingites?) seeking specific information on chemicals currently being pumped into the ground that could be potentially harmful to the environment. Essentially, the court in Casper ruled in favor of the state of Wyoming, which already has the sought-after intelligence about these chemicals (thanks to a 2010 rule in which Wyoming became one of the first states to require fracking companies to disclose their ingredients to the state government) but refuses to share this information with the general public.

A bit of background: the chemicals in question are used by mining companies to lubricate the cracks in the earth created by hydraulic fracturing (fracking), so that loose sand will pour in and hold the cracks open, to more easily access the natural gases beneath. Environmentalists across the globe have grave concerns about the environmental consequences of fracking, as readers of this blog already know. Wyoming itself is already on red alert with the EPA regarding what kind of permanent damage is being done by fracking to its groundwater. So, the demand by environmental groups to publicly release the ingredients of these fracking fluids does not seem inherently unreasonable to me, and yet the court found otherwise, on the grounds that the ingredients are trade secrets that are protected from disclosure under Wyoming’s open records laws. Environmentalists argue that they have strong claims to the information, as it could help prevent irreversible pollution damage.

While environmentalist groups debate taking the case to a higher court, James Fallow, in a fascinating Q&A with the Atlantic, argues that asteroid mining within the next century could save the environment.

Fracking Updates in NY, IL, and MN

Probably not the best sand for fracking. Photo by Sharon Mooney, some rights reserved.

A quick update on fracking regulations at the state level around the country: The New York State Assembly passed a two-year moratorium on high volume hydraulic fracturing, which must now go before the Senate, then Governor Andrew Cuomo. The bill also would require the State University of New York to conduct a review of high volume fracking. The Assembly’s bill follows similar moratoria passed in 2010 and 2011 that went nowhere in the Senate; however, the political makeup of the Senate makes the bill’s passage more likely this year.

Governor Cuomo’s administration is awaiting its own health impact study of fracking before proceeding with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s fracking regulations. This regulatory review process has already resulted in what is essentially a five-year ban on fracking. DLA Piper, whose memo gives the details on the moratorium, sees the prospects for shale gas production in New York to be low.

In contrast, Illinois, after five months of negotiations between environmental groups and the energy industry, has worked out draft regulations on fracking. The Natural Resources Defense Council stepped in to ensure that drillers were liable for water pollution and that they disclosed the chemical makeup of fracking fluid, among other safeguards.

The makeup of the fracking fluid that is injected to extract shale gas has been a hot topic recently, but a few Minnesota towns are making news by rejecting Minnesota Proppant’s proposal to open a sand processing and rail-loading facility. The sand near St. Charles Township in southeastern Minnesota is just the right size and strength to wedge open cracks just enough for natural gas to escape. And after St. Charles Township rejected their proposal, next-door St. Charles did the same. Supposedly Wisconsin has been more pro-sand mining in the past, but there is some evidence that it might not be smooth sailing there, either, as the town of Bridge Creek rejected similar plans for a sand mine there.

Protecting Utah’s Red Rocks

Photo by frango. Some rights reserved.

Photo by frango. Some rights reserved.

Having never been to southern Utah, everything I know about its natural beauty I’ve learned through second hand reports and the film 127 Hours. Man-eating crevices aside, even a cursory Google image search for “Utah red rocks” make it pretty clear that it’s a special place, full of labyrinthine alien rock formations sculpted over millions of years by wind and rain. However, like all other scenes of extreme beauty, red-rock country in Utah is susceptible to the elements, especially when coupled with heavy tourism.

However, in the great tradition of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, Democratic Utah state senator Jim Dabakis has proposed setting aside 1.5 million acres of the red-rock area as under federal government protection. This area is currently adjacent to but outside the jurisdiction of the Canyonlands National Park, which means it’s currently managed at the state level. Mining entrepreneurs have had eyes on this territory for some time, which alarms conservationists who would see this are endure. Hence, Mr. Dabakis’ resolution to protect these lands from any sort of development, save for an unspecified amount of land in eastern Utah that while be used for energy development.

“The recreation people aren’t going to be happy, the drill-baby-drill crowd isn’t going to be happy,” Dabakis said to the New York Times. “But it will be a giant victory with some individual losses.”

Alaska Gold: PBS Frontline on Pebble Mine

Photo by simonmjowitt. Some rights reserved.

Bristol Bay is a beautiful region in Southwest Alaska, home to glacial ponds, mountain ranges, and some of the largest runs of salmon in the world. It’s also home to massive amounts of porphyry copper, gold, and molybdenum mineral deposits.

These natural resources haven’t gone unnoticed. The minerals in the so-called “Pebble deposit” are on land owned by the state of Alaska, but the rights to those deposits are owned by the Pebble Partnership, an Alaska limited partnership formed in 2007 between Anglo American PLC and Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.

The Pebble Partnership is currently in the pre-feasibility and pre-permitting research stage of developing a mine to extract the estimated $300 billion worth of recoverable metals. As part of this research process, a few years ago the Pebble Partnership commissioned an Environmental Baseline Document characterizing the “physical, biological and social environment as it exists today.”

Using their own research earlier this year, the EPA released an assessment of potential impacts to the area from mining operations. The assessment projected a major loss of fish habitat, the high probability of a damaging pipeline break, and the continuous threat of acid mine drainage, but the developers were quick to strike back, calling the study “scientifically flawed, inappropriately timed and politically motivated.”

Such possible environmental impacts make up the bulk of opponents’ concerns. Proponents, on the other hand, see the exploration and development as a chance to create jobs in the area and reduce American dependence on foreign raw materials. To fully explain the controversy of Pebble Mine, however, you’d need a full-length documentary – so I’m handing the reigns over to PBS Frontline, which has taken on the growing battle in Bristol Bay in the documentary Alaska Gold.

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Alaska Department of Natural Resources has more links to related information.

GAO to SEC: Still No Final Rule on Conflict Minerals? Really?

By now, the SEC’s leisurely pace for adopting the mining & minerals provisions under Dodd-Frank has become almost comical. The final rule for Section 1503 (Mine Safety Disclosure) was published approximately one year after the rule was initially proposed. The rules under Section 1504 (Disclosure of Payments by Resource Extraction Issuers) and Section 1502 (Conflict Minerals) haven’t done any better – the final versions of the rules proposed back in December of 2010 have yet to surface. And folks are getting antsy.

Yesterday the GAO published a relatively neutral-sounding report, “Conflict Minerals Disclosure Rule: SEC’s Actions and Stakeholder-Developed Initiatives,” that talked about all the various factors leading to the SEC’s delay in finalizing the conflict mineral rule. Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act requires the SEC to issue a disclosure rule for companies using conflict minerals (tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold) in their products, and it’s a complicated and controversial subject.

The SEC claims that since July 2010, it has received “a large and steady volume of comment letters […] with over 400 distinct comment letters posted to its website.” (Knowledge Mosaic subscribers can see comments here.) The time to address these comment letters, along with the many meeting requests from external stakeholders have supposedly contributed to the SEC’s delays.

In addition, the GAO says that the SEC has faced a sharp learning curve in “develop[ing] contextual understanding” about “relevant in-region political and economic actors, economic arrangements between these actors, and other evolving issues in these [mineral-rich, war-torn] countries,” and that the Commission has taken on “complex and time-consuming” “rigorous economic analysis” as a result.

The problem is, these delays are more than just a slight professional embarrassment – according to the GAO, various stakeholders have already developed and implemented initiatives that may help affected companies comply with the anticipated rule. Now, “due to the uncertainty regarding potential due diligence and disclosure requirements stemming from SEC’s delay in issuing a final rule, some stakeholders’ efforts to improve their initiatives through expansion and harmonization have been hindered.”

GAO’s recommendations? “GAO recommends that the Chairman of SEC identify remaining steps and associated time frames to issue a final rule.”

For background on the conflict minerals provisions, check out some of our previous posts. And don’t forget to check out the GAO report for more details on the delays.

Two “Big Deal” Final Rules Released: Mine Safety Disclosure and Mercury and Air Toxics Standards

Photo by Grayskullduggery. Some rights reserved.

December 21st marked a day of great regulatory importance as both the SEC and EPA released final versions of rules that have been in the works for years.

The SEC published Final Rule 33-9286, “Mine Safety Disclosure,” – which implements Section 1503 of the Dodd-Frank Act – a grandiose 364 days after the proposed version hit the Federal Register. The new rule will dictate how mining companies must disclose information about mine safety and health in certain SEC filings. Now that the rule has finalized (it becomes effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Regsiter), we hope to see examples of this disclosure from more companies than just Monarch Cement Co.

Even earlier in the day came the news that the EPA had revealed its new, finalized rule setting national standards to limit mercury, acid gases and other toxic pollution from power plants. Grist called the rules a “Big Deal,” waxing poetic about how the rules “will make America a more decent, just, and humane place to live.” Grist wasn’t the only one who thought so – we thought they were landmark, too. To read more about the standards, check out the EPA’s “MATS” page.

So go ahead and mark December 21st down in your calendar. It may just go down in history.

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