The Obama administration yesterday said it could not endorse legislation that would make way for a copper mine in an Arizona national forest, reversing the Bush administration's support of the bill and outraging its Republican sponsors in the Senate.
Forest Service Deputy Chief Joel Holtrop told the Senate Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee that the administration has serious concerns about S. 409, a proposed land swap which would allow Resolution Copper to build a mine on a piece of Arizona's Tonto National Forest in exchange for private lands. He said the administration had not finalized its opinion on the bill but would do so within weeks.
While speaking on behalf of the Bush administration, Holtrop had twice expressed support for the exchange with only minor concerns.
The switch outraged Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), as did the call for more delays. "I've been around long enough to know how this works," he said. "They know that if they delay long enough, [Resolution Copper] will walk away. The people of Arizona, the country and the world will suffer."
He noted Resolution Copper -- which is owned by subsidiaries of mining giants Rio Tinto PLC and BHP-Billiton PLC -- has already spent more than $400 million studying the land and that its investors would not tolerate such expenditures without results indefinitely.
Without the administration's support, McCain said, passing the bill would by "virtually impossible."
The land exchange has been controversial since it was first promoted in the 109th Congress. Supporters say the private land offered in exchange is critical to protecting local ecology and history, while critics say Resolution is using low-value lands to buy an exemption from environmental reviews on areas that should remained protected as a national forest.
As currently written, Holtrop said, the bill would preclude the Forest Service from reviewing the land exchange under the National Environmental Policy Act, instead allowing only for review of the mining activities that followed the exchange. Holtrop said the NEPA review should precede the land exchange, which he acknowledged would exceed the one-year deadline set out by the bill.
"We anticipate that there will be considerable concern with any decision and there is a likelihood of administrative appeal and litigation," he said. Holtrop also questioned the value of some of the private lands Resolution is offering.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) the bill's co-sponsor, was also critical of the administration's position. Kyl had blocked an Obama Energy Department nominee in order to force the Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee to hold the hearing on S. 409.
The proposed mine could meet up to one-fifth of the nation's copper demand, Kyl said. Copper, he noted, is an important raw material in "green" technologies -- a hybrid car requires twice as much copper as a conventional autos and a single wind turbine requires one ton.
Subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he had not yet reached a position on the bill. "That's not how I do business," Wyden told E&E. "First, I need to talk to my colleagues."
Resolution President David Salisbury said his company needed to own the land because the regulatory uncertainty of working on public land was not compatible with a project that required a nearly $1 billion investment up front.
The land exchange has split Arizona's conservation community. Rosemary Shearer, executive director of the Superstition Area Land Trust, said her organization supports the bill. She said the copper development was inevitable, but Resolution had agreed to do it in the most environmentally friendly manner and while maintaining nearby sensitive lands.
Norman Cooeyate, governor of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, said the mine would cause irreversible destruction to sacred lands. "The proposed Resolution Mine will destroy this living place and its unique ecosystems," he said. "It will forever alter and damage the waters on the land, below the ground, and from the springs."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he has not reached a position on the bill. A previous version had incorrect information.