uranium company launched a concerted lobbying campaign to scale back Bears Ears National Monument, saying such action would give it easier access to the area’s uranium deposits and help it operate a nearby processing mill, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and top Utah Republicans have said repeatedly that questions of mining or drilling played no role in President Trump’s announcement Monday that he was cutting the site by more than 1.1 million acres, or 85 percent. Trump also signed a proclamation nearly halving the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is also in southern Utah and has significant coal deposits.
“This is not about energy,” Zinke told reporters Tuesday. “There is no mine within Bears Ears.”
But the nation’s sole uranium processing mill sits directly next to the boundaries that President Barack Obama designated a year ago when he established Bears Ears. The documents show that Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc., a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, urged the Trump administration to limit the monument to the smallest size needed to protect key objects and areas, such as archeological sites, to make it easier to access the radioactive ore.
In a May 25 letter to the Interior Department, Chief Operating Officer Mark Chalmers wrote that the 1.35 million-acre expanse Obama created “could affect existing and future mill operations.” He later noted, “There are also many other known uranium and vanadium deposits located within the [original boundaries] that could provide valuable energy and mineral resources in the future.”
Trump instructed Zinke in April to assess 27 monuments designated under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives presidents wide latitude to protect federal lands and waters under threat. Conservationists, tribal officials, ranching groups and other interests sought to influence the review’s outcome, unsuccessfully in the case of the two Utah sites.
Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R-Utah) addressed the energy considerations in an interview Monday. “The only thing that smacks of energy is the uranium,” he said. “The uranium deposits are outside the monument now.”
Energy Fuels Resources did not just weigh in on national monuments through public-comment letters. It hired a team of lobbyists at Faegre Baker Daniels — led by Andrew Wheeler, who is awaiting Senate confirmation as the Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy secretary — to work on the matter and other federal policies affecting the company. It paid the firm $30,000 between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, according to federal lobbying records, for work on this and other priorities.
Company officials “were trying to get a sense of what was going on” with the review because some of their air and water quality monitoring stations and a road leading to the now-dormant Daneros mine all lay within the original monument, Goranson explained.
“The goal of the meeting . . . was not to go and advocate on the boundaries,” he said, adding that the lobbying for that was “on a separate track.” Still, the officials proposed small boundary adjustments to accommodate the monitoring stations as well as the mine, he acknowledged. And they emphasized that the company had cut its workforce by more than half since 2015 because of low uranium prices.
“They heard what we had to say about the job losses, etc.,” he said. Zinke’s deputies “were pretty positively disposed to” the idea of spurring future domestic uranium production.
The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The price of uranium has recently hovered between $20 and $25 per pound. To justify mining activity, it needs to approach $40 to $50. Michael Heim, a securities research analyst at Noble Capital Markets, said Friday that the current amount “is not a sustainable price” for firms such as Energy Fuels Resources. Given today’s price, Heim said, “the idea of creating more areas to mine wouldn’t have much impact.”