Land Swap Would Boost Huge Copper Mine

House Republicans and the Obama administration are at odds over a GOP bill aimed at boosting a proposed Arizona copper mine that would be the largest in North America.

GOP lawmakers and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association, say the project would pump billions of dollars into the Arizona economy and help create nearly 4,000 mining-related jobs.

They are pushing a bill, up for a House vote Wednesday, that would approve a land exchange to clear the way for the mining project 70 miles southeast of Phoenix.

Under the plan, first proposed in 2005, about 5,300 acres of environmentally sensitive land throughout Arizona would be transferred to federal control, including 3,000 acres on the lower San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona and 940 acres to be added to the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch southeast of Tucson. The land is controlled by Resolution Copper Co., a subsidiary of the giant global mining company Rio Tinto.

The Obama administration opposes the land swap, saying an environmental review should be completed before the exchange is made.

A review after the swap is completed would limit U.S. control over the project and make it harder to propose alternatives that could limit environmental damage, said Mary Wagner, associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

The $6 billion mining project near Superior, Ariz., is believed to be the third-largest undeveloped copper resource in the world and the largest in North America. The company says the project would create at least 1,400 jobs on site and more than 3,700 related jobs.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., the bill's sponsor, said there was no need for a full environmental review until after the swap is completed.

"It's just a land swap. It does not pre-empt anything like the Antiquities Act," the National Environmental Policy Act or other laws, he said.

Once the exchange is completed, "all the applicable laws follow," Gosar said.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the environmental review should be conducted now, when the U.S. government has the most leverage over the project. Once land that now is part of the Tonto National Forest is turned over to private control, "our ability to require (changes) and enforce the law is really limited at best," he said.

Grijalva and other Democrats also complained that under current law, the mining company will not have to pay any royalties to the U.S. government for mineral rights that could be worth tens of billions of dollars.

Grijalva called the mining proposal one of the most significant issues Congress has faced this year.

"A foreign-owned company doing business on U.S. public lands is basically getting a blank check on extraction (of copper) and a green light from Congress to go ahead and begin this without any return on the money," he said.

Jon Cherry, a vice president of Resolution Copper, said in a statement that he is optimistic the House will approve the land exchange. Over the life of the project, the mine could generate as much as $61 billion in economic benefit for Arizona "without the need for one dollar of federal stimulus," Cherry said.

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