September 4, 2020 - Extractive industry stakeholders and environmentalists are preparing for a potential Biden administration to move toward more restrictive management of federal lands as the former vice president continues to lay out prospective policies to limit potential mining sites and projects.
The fossil fuel and mining sectors have largely welcomed the current administration's efforts to roll back a number of Obama-era regulations as part of President Donald Trump's energy dominance focus, but November's election could put industry oversight on a different path. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party's presidential nominee, has pledged to reinstate environmental regulations rescinded under the Trump administration, particularly those affecting the fossil fuel industries, if he defeats Trump.
Biden plans to halt new oil and gas drilling on federal lands, though he has not called for a ban on hydraulic fracturing. He also announced his opposition to uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.'s proposed Pebble mine in Alaska.
"The contrast between President Trump and Biden is pretty stark," said Drew McConville, senior managing director of government relations for The Wilderness Society Action Fund.
Public lands can be a powerful tool for a new administration, McConville said, and he expects that a Biden administration would pursue "a comprehensive approach to climate" by addressing fossil fuel leasing and pollution as well as supporting renewable energy sources and carbon stores.
In July, Biden unveiled a $2 trillion climate and clean energy plan to rebuild the U.S. economy in light of the coronavirus pandemic's devastating effects. Part of that plan would involve 250,000 jobs dedicated to plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned mine sites. In that vein, if elected, Biden said he would "hold companies accountable for the environmental damage of their operations, including by clawing back golden parachutes and executive bonuses for companies that shift the environmental burdens of their actions onto taxpayers," according to his campaign's website.
Certain Policy Plans Remain Murky
Questions remain about the specifics around how a Biden administration would implement these public lands policies. His campaign has also been mum on a debate Congress has focused on throughout the Trump presidency: the fight over Antofagasta PLC's proposed Maturi copper-nickel-platinum mine in northern Minnesota.
Environmentalists have said water pollution from the project could threaten the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a pristine recreation area about five miles from where Antofagasta subsidiary Twin Metals Minnesota LLC would be conducting mining activity. The Obama administration opposed the project on environmental grounds, but the federal government under Trump reversed course.
Biden's campaign did not respond to a questionnaire sent to candidates during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary campaign by the Boundary Waters Action Fund, a conservation advocacy nonprofit that aims to prevent mining near the wilderness area. Jeremy Drucker, senior adviser at the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, told S&P Global Market Intelligence that his organization has not been able to get comment from the Biden campaign on where it stands on the project.
For a Biden administration to meet the "bold conservation vision" it has put forward so far, limiting mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — along with other sensitive areas, including the Grand Canyon — would need to be a part of that vision, McConville said. "I think there's a clear need for the next president to take strong actions to undo the damage that was done by the Trump administration and save some places that are immediately threatened," McConville said.
Biden's campaign did not respond to a request for details on how his administration would handle the proposed mine in northern Minnesota, nor to requests for more details on the potential administration's public lands policies.
Fossil fuel industry advocates see reason to worry about Biden's plans to curb federal mineral leasing.
"If Biden's talking about not leasing federal minerals, that would effectively end mining on federal lands," said Stan Dempsey Jr., president of the Colorado Mining Association. "In a broader sense, I don't think a Biden presidency would advance the ball in advancing the much-needed permitting modifications that are so desperately needed to develop hard rock or coal."
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said a Biden administration will over-regulate public lands, given the executive branch's greater influence over segments of the industry operating on federal property. A Biden administration would be a "repeat of the Obama administration times 11," Sgamma said, adding that the Western Energy Alliance will challenge any leasing bans in court.
"They have those levers in spades when it comes to public lands," Sgamma said. "There's so much you can do if you control the government to just slow leasing and permitting and [the National Environmental Policy Act] on public lands."
The Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents independent oil and natural gas producers, is particularly leery of Biden's plans to stop new production on federal lands. A Biden administration could use the regulatory process to hinder production, given agencies' "broad swath" of options in that realm, said Daniel Naatz, senior vice president of government relations and political affairs for the trade group.
Pointing to Biden's pledge to hold companies responsible for their environmental damage, Naatz noted that there are already regulations around environmental remediation that the industry must abide by.
"That's not to say there aren't abandoned wells, but there's a process in place," Naatz said. "If they want to try to look at some of those, these are probably discussions that need to be had, but this idea that it's just the wild West currently is just not true. ... If the goal is to make it so expensive, so prohibitively difficult to operate anywhere for oil and gas exploration, that's different than trying to find a reasonable solution to an issue."