Idaho Sen. Larry Craig has repeatedly pushed to turn over billions of dollars worth of public lands and minerals to mining companies - some of them big contributors to his campaign.
Craig says he’s always supported the mining industry because its health is important to Idaho, and his campaign contributions reflect that. But two of his big contributors are companies that want to mine in Colorado and Nevada.
Supporters of campaign finance reform say this is just the kind of situation that shows why reform is needed.
“It raises at least the perception that public policy can be purchased,” said Lloyd Leonard, legislative director for the League of Women Voters. “People don’t trust their government, and we need to do something about that.”
A sweeping campaign finance reform bill came up for consideration in the Senate last week. It would have eliminated PAC contributions, among other reforms. Craig, along with Idaho Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, voted against it. It died on a 54-46 vote.
Craig defended his support for - and from - the mining industry.
“When you’re supporting the industries of the state and the jobs of the state, therefore you’re supporting the people of the state,” he said in an interview.
“Mining is a very important part of the Idaho economy.” he added. “It creates a lot of jobs and vitality.” According to the Idaho Department of Commerce, mining accounted for about 2,700 jobs in Idaho in 1995, about half of 1 percent of the state’s jobs. It also produced about eight-tenths of 1 percent of Idaho’s gross state product.
Craig has been a leader in the Senate in pushing for mining law reforms acceptable to the industry. The push has come in the face of widespread dissatisfaction with the General Mining Law of 1872, which allows mining companies to buy, or “patent,” public lands for $2 to $5 an acre if they find minerals on them.
The mining industry contends it spends large sums to develop the mines, creating jobs and tax revenue in the process.
Patenting of public lands was cut off by Congress in October 1994. Congress slapped a one-year moratorium on mineral patents, which has since been extended for another year.
When the moratorium went into effect, there were more than 600 patent applications on file. Of those, 373 were far enough along in the approval process that the government decided to let them through. They’re now being processed.
The other 233 hadn’t gotten as far. The moratorium put them in limbo. Craig has repeatedly offered legislation to lift the moratorium. He also proposed changes designed to make future patenting more acceptable to taxpayers. But his legislation would allow the 233 pending patents to go through under the old rules.
The Mineral Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., group that long has clashed with the industry over mining law reform, says the 233 patent applications contain more than $15.5 billion in publicly owned minerals.
“That’s just assessing a few of the large ones,” said Vice President Jim Lyon. “If the moratorium is lifted, those will be processed and given away at 5 bucks an acre or less.”
The list includes The Mount Emmons Mine in Colorado, with $3 billion in minerals, and the Jerritt Canyon Mine in Nevada, with $1.1 billion in gold.
Mount Emmons is owned by Cyprus-Amax Minerals Co., which gave Craig $5,000 through its PAC for the 1994 election cycle alone. He received another $2,000 in December 1994 from five key Cyprus-Amax employees in Colorado and Arizona. The company and its affiliates have donated a total of $17,300 to Craig’s campaigns since 1989.
Jerritt Canyon is owned by FMC Corp. and a South African firm called Anglo/American. FMC has given $13,000 to Craig campaigns since 1989.
Craig said he believes companies that applied for patents have “property rights,” and he’s sharply critical of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt for not processing the backlog of approved applications more quickly.
“Once you file for a patent you have created a right under the law,” Craig said. “Bruce Babbitt is sitting on those property rights. He’s violating the law. Larry Craig is saying, as a defender of property rights, move them, Bruce Babbitt. You have a responsibility to.” Opponents of the 1872 mining law say the public loses when mining companies pick up public land and minerals on the cheap.
“What may have been a good deal back in 1872 today represents a costly corporate subsidy, and a very bad deal for the U.S. taxpayer,” said Susan Brackett, director of communications for the Mineral Policy Center.
Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., calls the mineral patents “the biggest scam going on in America today.” Bumpers is among those pushing for comprehensive reform of the mining law, including eliminating patents, charging royalties and requiring reclamation after mining.
Craig has offered industry-backed alternatives, including a new version of patenting that calls for reversion of the land back to the public after mining is done.
Craig’s legislation has made some headway. It was inserted into a huge budget bill last winter that passed both houses of Congress, but was vetoed by President Clinton. The mining provisions were among the president’s reasons for the veto.
Last September, Craig added an amendment to an appropriations bill for the Interior Department to lift the patent moratorium. It passed the Senate but failed in the House. The House sent the bill back to a conference committee with specific instructions to reinstate the moratorium.
Lyon said that was the third time the House had voted against lifting the moratorium. “You just don’t get that clear a message three times in this business,” he said. “They want these mining giveaways to end.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Mining PACs The following companies have mineral patent applications pending, and also made campaign contributions to Idaho Sen. Larry Craig. Listed are the company, the amount of the contributions made through the company’s PAC, and the proposed patent. Union Oil Co. of California. Contributed $7,000 to Craig since 1990. Has applied to patent 687 acres in California and 1,216 acres* in Colorado. Cyprus-Amax Minerals Co. Company and its affiliates contributed $17,300 to Craig since 1989. Seeking patents for 175 acres* in Colorado; 1,042 acres in Arizona; and 2,525 acres in Idaho. Santa Fe Pacific Gold Corp. Contributed $2,300 since 1989. Wants to patent 149 acres* in Nevada. Pfizer Inc. Contributed $2,000 since 1990. Applied for patents for 41 acres* in Montana, and 115 acres in California. Georgia-Pacific Corp. Contributed $2,000 since 1990. Seeking patents on 155 acres* in Nevada; 1,240 acres* in Utah; and 2,663 acres* in Wyoming. Magma Copper Co. Contributed $500 in 1995. Has patents pending on 100 acres in Arizona and 2,053 acres in Nevada. Asarco Inc. Contributed $4,600 since 1989. Has patents pending on 735 acres in Arizona. Exxon Corp. Contributed $8,000 since 1989. Seeking patents on 3,204 acres in Colorado. Battle Mountain Gold Co. Contributed $950 since 1993. Has patents pending for 225 acres in Nevada. FMC Corp. Contributed $13,000 since 1989. Co-applicant for patents on 1,796 acres in Nevada. Brush Wellman Co. Contributed $1,000 in October of 1994. Seeking patents on 2,439 acres in Utah. * These patents are on hold because of a congressional moratorium enacted in 1994. Sources: U.S. Department of Interior; Federal Elections Commission; staff research.