Going after crop subsidies, as we explored last week, is one way that Congress' new "crop" of Tea Party lawmakers could prove that they have more to offer on fiscal stewardshp than angry sound bites and catchy slogans.
My second test for the Tea Party is the 1872 Mining Law - a hoary special interest giveaway that's been picking the taxpayers' pockets and scarring the public's property for longer than anyone reading this has been alive.
The 1872 Mining Law hit the statute books during the Ulysses S. Grant administration (rated by The Daily Green as one of the worst presidents for the environment). The idea during that pick-and-shovel era was to encourage settlement and development of the West's wide open territories.
It's worked - too well - by giving hardrock mining first rights to public lands that mining companies take a fancy to. Stake out a mining claim on lands that Congress has not withdrawn from mining and you have a right to extract hardrock minerals - gold, silver, copper, or uranium, for example - from that claim.
The agencies that manage the land must let you proceed, even if there are better uses for that land - as protected watershed producing clean drinking water, say, or for wildlife management, recreation, raising livestock, or just to be left alone as wilderness.
You won't have to pay royalties to the taxpayers.
You won't have to share the cost of cleaning up abandoned mines.
See the 10 Most Highly Polluting U.S. Mines.
And if Congress chooses to lift a moratorium on "patenting" mining claims, you could buy the claim outright for the princely 1872 sum of $5 per acre, then turn around and sell it for princely 2010 sums that likely would be a damn sight higher.
Since 1872, minerals worth an estimated quarter trillion dollars have been extracted from public lands without taxpayers receiving one cent in royalties. In contrast, fossil energy producers working onshore and offshore tracts that belong to all of us must pay lease fees and royalties for the privilege. What property owner wouldn't demand same?
The Congressional Budget Office figures that about $1 billion worth of hardrock minerals are extracted from public lands each year. Using a royalty formula in 2007 reform legislation that failed, the taxpayers are losing out on $40 million per year.
There is nothing in federal law that allows oil, gas, or coal companies to buy the public lands on which they're operating, for any price. Under the 1872 Mining Law, however, some 3.4 million acres of public lands staked for mining claims have been "patented" at the law's obsolescent prices. While under congressional moratorium, the patenting provision remains in the law.
Learn about the Uranium Mine Proposed Near the Grand Canyon.
Mines operating on public lands today are subject to the Clean Water Act and other modern environmental statutes, but mines that operated back in the day were not. Some 250,000 to 500,000 abandoned mines, many leaking all manner of harmful gunk into Western waters, await cleanup at costs that could range up to $50 billion, perhaps more. Between 1998 and 2007, federal land management agencies spent $2.6 billion of your money cleaning up after old mines.
Coal companies pay fees to reclaim abandoned mines. Hardrock mining companies do not. Levying a 0.3 percent abandoned mine cleanup fee on hardrock mines - proposed in another failed reform bill - would yield roughly $29 million each year, according to the Pew Campaign for Mining Reform.
No royalties, no sharing of cleanup costs - it's a continuing bailout of one privileged industry that could make a greedy banker weep with envy.
Will Tea Party lawmakers take dead aim at this scandalous abuse of the taxpayers or will they fall prey to the fool's gold of blandishments and scare tactics served up by mining industry lobbyists? We will see.
Meanwhile, everyone enjoy gathering with families this holiday season. This column will be back in January.
See why this landscape, one of 10 Endangered Vacations , is at risk because of mining.
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