Reid Faces Political Crosscurrents in Mining Law Rewrite

By: Erica Werner AP
By: Erica Werner AP

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's role as a chief defender of hard-rock mining got trickier Thursday as House Democrats renewed a long-standing campaign to rewrite an 1872 law that protects the industry.

The General Mining Law is the "Jurassic Park of all federal laws," House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., complained to reporters as he outlined legislation to revise it.

Because of this law, mineral mining on federal land is exempt from paying royalties and from many environmental reviews, unlike coal mining or oil and gas drilling.

The minerals mining industry holds huge sway in Reid's home state of Nevada, which first boomed after miners struck silver at the Comstock Lode near Carson City in 1859. Nevada is the top gold-producing state.

The challenge facing Reid, the son of a gold miner, is placating environmentalists and fellow Democrats in Congress while maintaining his home base. Otherwise, Reid risks the fate of his predecessor as Democratic leader: Tom Daschle lost re-election in South Dakota in 2004 in part because his national role cost him home-state support.

In an interview, Reid said he backs changes to the mining law. Things are different now, he said, than they were during the last overhaul attempts in the mid-1990s. Then, Reid battled with senators he thought were out to hurt the mining industry. He always prevailed and the law remained fundamentally unchanged.

"We had people then that were more interested in destroying hard-rock mining," Reid said.

Rahall, he said, has been "difficult to work with on hard-rock mining issues" in the past, "but a lot of things have transpired."

"Nick and I had a long conversation. He'll be easy to work with," Reid predicted.

Rahall said he and Reid share the same goals, including a fair return to taxpayers, cleanup standards and regulatory and permitting certainty for the industry.

"I personally have reached out to the majority leader and vice versa, and we will continue our discussions on this issue," Rahall said.

Nevada political analysts said Reid will accept changes - up to a point.

"It all depends on how you define the word reform. I think Harry Reid supports reform as much as the next person who represents a state with powerful mining interests," said Jon Ralston, a nonpartisan Nevada political analyst and columnist.

Reid got more than $100,000 in donations from the mining industry between 2001 and 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Mining is a $5 billion industry in Nevada and is especially crucial to the economy outside of Las Vegas.

Reid's political support is weak in rural Nevada anyway, analysts said. Nonetheless Reid, who will face re-election to a fifth term in 2010, must remain watchful of political support in his home state, where Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats.

Rahall would impose environmental requirements, give more power
to federal land managers to deny mining applications and assess an
8 percent royalty fee that would go into a fund to clean up abandoned mine sites.

The National Mining Association says it supports adding certainty to permitting and an abandoned mine cleanup fund. But spokeswoman Carol Raulston said that an 8 percent royalty fee "could be very punitive to the industry."

Supporters of the changes are hoping to see action now that Democrats control Congress. But there is not yet a sponsor for a Senate version of the bill, and Reid indicated Senate action would not happen before 2008.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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