Politics can make strange bedfellows, but it can also lead to bizarre estrangements.
How else to describe the opprobrium heaped upon U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto over her sponsorship of a mining bill that would continue to allow miners to dump waste rock on adjacent property.
The bill is co-sponsored by Idaho Republicans Mike Crapo and James Risch, Arizona independent Kyrsten Sinema, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and Nevada’s other senator, Jacky Rosen.
It was made necessary by a recent 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that blocked an Arizona copper mine that wanted to use more than 2,400 adjacent acres of land to dispose of waste rock. In a break with precedent, courts ruled the mining operation could not move forward.
Cortez Masto responded with a bill she dubbed the Mining Regulatory Clarity Act of 2023, a four-page measure that would repudiate the reasoning in the Arizona case and allow “any activity reasonably incident to” mining, including disposing of waste.
But those four pages created a furor among environmentalists, who hailed the Arizona ruling because of its implications for the environment.
“Sen. Cortez Masto has become a mining industry puppet and is throwing communities, tribes and wildlife under the bus,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity, according to The Associated Press. (The center was the lead plaintiff in the Arizona case.)
“We thought she was an ally of the environment,” said Fermina Stevens, a spokesperson for the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone in Elko, the AP also reported.
“This legislation is an unprecedented giveaway to the mining industry, one that would further entrench the legacy of injustice to Indigenous communities and damage to public lands held in trust for future generations,” said Laura Pagel, policy director of Earthworks, on the Natural History Wanderings blog.
And Hugh Jackson, editor of the nonprofit news site the Nevada Current, accused Cortez Masto of coddling the industry, noting she also stood against reforms to the 1872 law that still governs mining in the United States.
It’s a head-snapping change from the support Cortez Masto and Rosen received for their support of designating the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument last month, a designation that killed a wind power project planned for a portion of the now-protected land.
Cortez Masto said mining is critical to Nevada, not only for jobs but also for green energy. It’s also a national security issue: We don’t want to become as dependent on China for lithium as we are on Middle Eastern nations for oil. The lithium mined in Nevada will be used to make electric car batteries and fight climate change, Cortez Masto said. (The bill, however, would apply to all mining, not just lithium.)
“There is a way to do it as a balanced approach,” she said, noting the irony of groups that support clean energy opposing the mining of minerals that would enable clean energy.
Whatever else may be said of her stance, it can’t be said it’s political: Her support of the bill has earned her criticism from natural allies in the progressive and environmental movements, and it’s not likely to earn her very many votes in rural Nevada. (In 2022, she lost every rural county, some by 2-to-1 or even 3-to-1 margins.)
“I don’t normally let politics dictate what’s in the best interests of the state of Nevada,” she said.
It’s not all political downside, however: She did get support from organized labor groups that represent mining workers. “Clarifying this regulation will help ensure and create thousands of good union jobs for Nevadans,” said Rob Benner, secretary-treasurer of the Northern Nevada Central Labor Council.
“IBEW Local 1245 is grateful to have Sen. Cortez Masto standing with our union workers and against misguided efforts that threaten good-paying jobs in Nevada,” said Bob Dean, business manager for the union.
Most everyone agrees that climate change is real and that moving away from burning fossil fuels is desirable. But there are costs that come with those choices, and consequences that come from mining the minerals that we’ll need to get to a cleaner future. They can be mitigated — asking mining companies to pay more to remediate waste operations, for example — but they can’t be avoided.
We have to decide what we regard as the highest priority: pristine public lands or minerals critical to our energy future. With her bill, Cortez Masto has given her answer.