On the day he was not nominated to the Supreme Court, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stepped up his campaign for reform of public-land laws in the West.
oversized symbolic check, Babbitt bashed the "outdated" 1872 Mining
Law that forced him to hand over more than $10 billion in gold to a
Canada-based company for less than $10,000.
"This is the biggest rip-off since the Yankees
stole Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for pocket change," said Babbitt
after signing a mineral patent transferring 1,800 acres of public
land near Elko, Nev., to Barrick Goldstrike Mines. A federal judge
ordered Babbitt to turn over the patent by June 20 of this year
unless there was cause for denial. Babbitt has acknowledged that
the company's application was valid, but the Goldstrike, the
richest gold mine on public land in the United States, has proved a
powerful symbol in the debate over mining reform.
"It's the biggest gold heist since the days of
Butch Cassidy," Babbitt said. "But these folks stole it fair and
square. The West has long since been settled but the giveaway
Now that Barrick owns the
land, it will not have to pay a royalty to the federal government.
A tax on gold extracted from public land is a central element of
mining law reform.
Budget chief Leon Panetta
joined in attacking the mining law that forced the government to
"sign over to a foreign-owned company the rights to $10 billion
worth of taxpayer-owned gold for less money than they charge NBA
players for fighting during a game. This has turned from a needed
incentive into a multibillion-dollar rip-off. And it has to stop."
The rhetorical flourishes continued as
environmentalists and mining industry lobbyists swung into action.
Phil Hocker, director of the pro-reform Mineral Policy Center,
blamed the Senate for failing to pass legislation to replace the
1872 Mining Law. "In effect," he said, "the members of the Senate
have been standing on the back porch of the capitol, ringing the
dinner bell and shouting "Come and get it before it's all gone" to
the mining companies."
Sierra Club lobbyist
Kathryn Hohman added, "Barrick Resources picked the taxpayer's
pocket, while pock-marking the public's land. The mining company
got the gold and the public got the shaft."
Garver, an attorney and lobbyist for Barrick, responded, "If you
believe Babbitt, I ought to just be able to take that check to the
bank. In fact, tonight we can do the same thing we did this
morning: bulldoze around and claw gold from the ground. This didn't
change anything for Barrick. We're glad he finally complied with
the law. But this was mostly a press event. It was the opening
salvo in Interior's efforts to get mining law reform."
The mining industry's chief lobbyist, Jack
Gerard of the Mineral Resources Alliance, a group of more than
2,000 mining companies and industry organizations, said Babbitt
"fails to recognize the sizable investment made by mining companies
before extracting a single ounce of gold or silver or the millions
of tax dollars and thousands of jobs generated by the industry."
Gerard added, "The mining industry has been waiting at the
bargaining table and is prepared to support reasonable reform this
The political battle over mining reform
is heating up as Congress prepares behind-the-scenes for a
contentious conference committee to resolve two very different
mining reform bills that passed the House and Senate last year.
Both Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen J.
Bennett Johnston, D-La., have named delegates to the conference
committee. It will meet this summer to hammer out a reform bill
with enough "strong" environmental provisions to satisfy the House
while not provoking a filibuster from Western senators who say
reform must be "fair" to the mining