E&E News - Copper Mine Bill, Sealaska Said to Have Made Cut for Defense Bill Rider

News Article

By Manuel Quinones

Legislation to facilitate the development of a controversial copper mine in Arizona, plus a measure to transfer Forest Service lands to Juneau, Alaska-based Sealaska Corp., were reportedly included in a lands package designed to be attached to the forthcoming defense authorization bill.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a prominent member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the copper and Sealaska measures were in a draft public lands package that could be attached to the "National Defense Authorization Act" (E&E Daily, Dec. 2). Last night, indications on the Hill were that the package would make it into the defense measure.

"I saw a draft of it last week, and yeah, it was in there," Grijalva said about the copper measure during an interview this afternoon. He later confirmed hearing about Sealaska's inclusion.

The mine legislation would give Resolution Copper -- a venture of Rio Tinto PLC and BHP Billiton Ltd. -- control of more than 2,000 acres of federal land, including areas where mineral development is currently prohibited, in exchange for more than 5,000 acres of company land.

Grijalva and other conservation-minded lawmakers, plus Native American groups, have strongly opposed the measure, saying the mine would damage sacred or cultural sites and pollute the environment.

Legislation supporters, who say the mine would still be subject to National Environmental Policy Act review and accuse naysayers of lying about the mine's effects, pulled the bill from the House floor twice last year amid concerns it wouldn't get enough support.

House Republican leaders were also concerned at the time about an amendment by Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), considered a poison pill by mine backers, to exclude tribal sacred or cultural sites from the land exchange (E&E Daily, Nov. 14, 2013).

Grijalva said it was ironic that consideration of the bill coincided, both last year and now, with the White House Tribal Nations Conference. He hoped Native American opposition could derail the measure again, but wasn't sure it would.

"That's the only way they can pass it, wrapped up in a package that a lot of Democrats are going to vote for 'cause there's stuff in there for them," Grijalva said.

Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake weren't sure about the fate of efforts to attach the mine land swap to the NDAA. "They're still talking about the land title," Flake said. Asked whether he was pushing for inclusion, he said, "You bet."

Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski's Sealaska bill would convey roughly 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska, mostly for logging. The bill, backed by the Obama administration, seeks to satisfy the Alaska Native-owned company's land claims under a 1971 settlement, though it still has major environmental critics.

One lobbyist who follows public lands issues also said it appeared likely that Murkowski's Sealaska and McCain's copper bills were included in the lands package.

Democrats may have included the provisions to garner Republican support, particularly given that the GOP will soon be taking over the Senate. Some environmental groups were girding to oppose those bills, complaining that Democrats were getting a raw deal.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said he did not believe public lands measures would make it into the NDAA, given the condensed time frame to get something passed.

"They're trying to do too much," Moran said off the House floor this afternoon. "We only have four or five days to work it out. I just don't think it's going to happen. When you bring in too many pieces of land, you're just bound to run into problems. It starts to unravel."

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said that he would wait to see what the House sends over, but that he would like NDAA to include the lands package.