The Trump administration is signaling a renewed push to consider uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, a move that would undoubtedly ignite a political fight involving environmentalists and the mining industry.
President Trump’s decision to declare uranium a critical mineral for national security purposes, coupled with a Commerce Department recommendation to mine reserves of a key component to nuclear weapons, has environmentalists worried that the reversal of an Obama-era ban on mining near the cherished national park is imminent.
“It’s not a secret that uranium mining companies have pined after the Grand Canyon for a long time,” said Amber Reimondo, energy program director at Grand Canyon Trust. “The last time there was a uranium price spike in 2007, over 10,000 mining claims were filed.”
Critics question the timing of the potential reversal: The Grand Canyon is nearing its peak visitation period in the summer months, and the price of uranium is at its lowest level in more than a decade. They also argue that the recent developments underscore the close relationship between the uranium mining industry and the administration.
Opening up mining near the Grand Canyon would also have political implications for 2020, particularly with Arizona becoming a battleground in races for both the White House and control of the Senate. So far, Democrats have sided with environmentalists in their opposition to mining in the area, while Republicans point to potential for job creation.
The administration first indicated in 2017 that it was looking at steps to boost uranium production. Trump that year signed an executive order to ensure there was suitable supplies of what the administration deemed “critical minerals,” or minerals and elements considered key to national security.
The Commerce Department last week took another step by issuing a recommendation to help speed up production of all essential minerals on the list.
The mining industry is now awaiting one final step: Trump’s decision on whether to approve a January 2018 petition filed by two of the country’s top uranium producers — Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy — to enact a 25 percent purchasing quota for domestic uranium.
The uranium around the Grand Canyon is considered some of the highest grade in the U.S. But it’s not a seller’s market.
The average price of uranium last year was about $30 a pound, down from about $100 in 2007.
Approval of the 2018 petition, however, would benefit struggling uranium mining companies by forcing the defense industry and power sector to purchase the element domestically instead of from foreign sources like Australia and Canada.
“The companies have been pushing for a number of things to get the prices up, like including uranium in the list of critical minerals. It’s definitely an effort by companies like Energy Fuels — which has lands around the Grand Canyon — to get those uranium prices,” said Sandy Bahr at the Sierra Club.
“There is no royalty on hard rock mineral,” Bahr added. “There is almost nothing that is returned to the public from these mines on public lands.”