Today, Nick Rahall (D-WVA), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is expected to introduce a bill to end the last big giveaway of the West's public property: the General Mining Law of 1872. Passed during the Grant Administration, the law allows mining companies to remove gold, copper and other hard-rock minerals from public lands without paying a cent in federal royalties. Rahall's bill will be at least the 15th time that Congress has tried to add a leasing or royalty provision to the law, but the search for government revenue in the midst of the financial crisis, combined with strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, gives the effort a fighting chance of passing this year.
So how much money is at stake? The Pew Campaign for Responsible mining today released a report estimating that outdated mining rules will cost the treasury $1.6 billion over the next decade. But I've looked at the numbers myself, and that figure seems like a gross underestimate. Past studies have shown that royalties on hard-rock minerals would be worth $100 to $200 million a year. Then there's the depletion allowance, a tax loophole that allows mining companies to deduct up to a fifth of their gross revenues. In 2001 the Clinton Administration valued the depletion allowance at $265 million on public lands alone, and in 1980 the government valued it on all mining lands at $1.75 billion. None of these figures are adjusted for inflation. So conservatively, the 10-year loss to the Treasury from outdated mining policies is more like $7 billion. Though that still might not seem like much in the bailout era, it adds up. The total losses due to the depletion allowance and the 137-year-old mining law are probably on the order of $100 billion--easily worth a bank bailout or two.
President Barack Obama's EPA now looks likely to reverse Bush and allow California and 13 other states to set their own stricter auto emission and mileage standards. By 2016, the California rules will require automakers to show a 30 percent overall reduction in their vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions. That's not bad considering that at least 40 percent of the 16 million new cars sold each year come from states that want to adopt the California standards (and that the California rules might just become the national default anyway). The transportation sector accounts for 26 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions--the largest single chunk after the catch-all category of "industry."
By 2015, the California rules are at least3 miles per gallon stricter than federal standards. That translates into a first-year savings of at least 200 million gallons of gas. It doesn't seem like much when you consider that each day the United States uses about 390 million gallons of gas, but the savings will grow each year as more new cars hit the road, until 2020, when the California standards become 7 mpg more stringent than the federal rules and things really get interesting.
Yesterday the Government Accountability Office released its annual list of government programs that it considers to be at risk of waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement and due for reform. The list included three new programs: the financial regulatory system (duh), the FDA's regulation of drugs (Vioxx, and this), and the EPA's regulation of toxic chemicals. The last has received little press, except here and here in Mother Jones (MJ contributor Mark Schapiro also published a book on the subject), which makes the GAO's bold suggestions much more striking.
The GAO says the EPA has a huge backlog of unperformed assessments that are needed to determine whether individual toxic chemicals should be regulated:
Overall the EPA has finalized a total of only 9 assessments in the past 3 fiscal years. As of December, 2007, 69 percent of ongoing assessments had been in progress for more than 5 years and 17 percent had been in progress for more than 9 years. In addition, EPA data as of 2003 indicated that more than half of the 540 existing assessments may be outdated. Five years later, the percentage is likely to be much higher.
Of course, as we've pointed out, Europe has stepped into this vacuum with a much more stringent set of toxics regulations that essentially puts the burden of proving the safety of chemicals upon the industries that use them. The logical thing would be for the US to simply adopt Europe's approach, and that's essentially what the GAO is now suggesting. The government should "shift more of the burden to chemical companies for demonstrating the safety of their chemicals," the GAO says, "and enhance the public's understanding of the risks of chemicals to which they may be exposed."
A few days after Christmas, while visiting family in Dallas, I was driving with my parents to dinner in their Lexus (bumper sticker: "Don't Mess With Texas"). Along the way we passed an elementary school, which is just down the street from the ranch-style house at 10141 Daria Place that George and Laura Bush now call home. "Can you believe he put all those kids in danger?" my mom gasped. She fears Bush will be assassinated in a dirty bomb attack that will also incinerate the rest of the zip code.