Thursday, December 14, 2017
The Ninth Circuit this week ruled that the Secretary of the Interior could withdraw, for up to twenty years, over one million acres of land near Grand Canyon National Park from new uranium mining claims. The ruling deals a blow to mining companies and local governments who brought the lawsuit. But the blow may be temporary, if the current administration reverses course and allows mining.
The case, National Mining Association v. Zinke, arose when then-Secretary Salazar exercised his authority under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and moved to withdraw the land from mining claims. Under the Act, the Interior Secretary has authority to withdraw large tracts of federal land from mining, so long as the Secretary publishes a notice in the Federal Register, affords an opportunity for public hearing and comment, and obtains consent to the withdrawal from any other department or agency involved in the administration of the relevant lands. Moreover, the Secretary can only withdraw land for 20 years, max, and has to report to Congress.
The Act also contains a legislative veto, allowing Congress, by concurrent resolution only (and not with a presidential signature), to veto the Secretary's withdrawal.
As soon as Salazar filed his Notice of Intent in the Federal Register, mining companies and local governments sued, arguing, among other things, that the Secretary lacked authority under the Act. Their theory went like this: The Act's legislative veto provision is unconstitutional under Chadha; the legislative veto is not severable from the rest of the Act (including the Secretary's authority to withdraw federal land); and therefore the unconstitutionality of the legislative veto provision dooms the entire withdrawal provision of the Act, including the Secretary's authority.
The Ninth Circuit rejected this theory. The court ruled that the legislative veto provision was severable, and didn't affect the Secretary's authority. Therefore, the Secretary could go ahead and initiate the withdrawal, pursuant to requirements under the Act, irrespective of the legislative-veto's invalidity.
The court went on to reject the several merits arguments against the Secretary's exercise of authority.