By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
This has hundreds of prospectors sharpening their pickaxes and invoking archaic mineral laws to explore millions of acres of public and private lands in the American West. Many of them are leasing mineral rights from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management. Ranchers, Native American tribes, and other people often own the surface. The federal government often controls the subsurface mineral rights. It's BLM's job to balance the rights of both sides.
But BLM, which manages one-eighth of the land in the United States and 300 million acres of subsurface mineral rights, is being too lenient with mining companies, say environmentalists. BLM has been especially eager to help energy companies exploit coal deposits on ranches in Montana and Wyoming that are not practical for mining but can be pumped for coal-bed methane, natural gas that is trapped underground with the coal.
BLM freely admits that it takes its orders from the White House, which is instructing the bureau to favor fossil fuel developers. "Clearly, we have the president's initiative, and we are charged with carrying out that initiative," says BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington.
Mineral miners, meanwhile, are taking advantage of laws dating back to the 19th-century gold rush, but some of them insist that they are doing more than simply joining a 21st-century platinum rush.
"The whole reason I got into this is to fulfill this fantasy of a new clean source of energy," says Robert Angrisano, a former Microsoft executive and president of Nevada Star Resources, a platinum exploration company with mineral rights to drill for platinum in Alaska's Denali region. "And to do it, we need more research into fuel cells, and more platinum."
Nevada Star is one of a slew of so-called juniors, often underfunded operations run by rich individuals with little actual mining experience. Their websites often feature pictures of engineers poring over a map in a wilderness area, with a helicopter perched in the background. The juniors' chances of finding significant amounts of PGMs are slim, but the rewards would be great in a hydrogen economy. And since many of these exploration companies trade as penny stocks on public exchanges, investors are absorbing most of the risk.
Environmentalists reject miners' claims that they are motivated by a desire to build a better world with less pollution. "Miners are like lemmings," says Mara Bacsujlaky, assistant director and mining coordinator at the North Alaska Environmental Center. "They're not exploring because they care about fuel cells, but because platinum happens to be high."