WASHINGTON – Arizona lawmakers pushed Thursday for swift approval of a bill to open thousands of acres near Superior for copper mining, one of a package of job-creating bills promoted by the Western Caucus.
The mining legislation was one of more than 30 bills in the “Jobs Frontier” report that Republican lawmakers in the Western Caucus said would promote jobs by combating regulations that stifle businesses.
Included in the package were bills that seek to prevent coal ash from being labeled “hazardous waste,” reclassify more hydropower as a renewable resource and force federal agencies to analyze the number of jobs affected by proposed environmental protections.
Arizona Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, were at the news conference to support the plan, which Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, later said he supported in a statement.
For them, the proposed land swap with Resolution Copper Co. was key.
“This proposal, to mine the richest copper ore (body) in North America ever discovered, rather than having to import copper from other countries, would have a profound effect on the economy of the hardest-hit part of the state of Arizona,” McCain said.
The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2011 would swap thousands of acres of copper-rich federal land in Pinal County with Resolution Copper, which has said the resulting mine could be in operation for up to 60 years.
Gosar introduced the bill — the 10th version of the land-swap proposal in six years — in May and it passed the House Committee on Natural Resources in July. It has not yet come to a vote before the full House.
McCain and Gosar each estimated that the mine would support 3,700 jobs.
“Our state and our country will benefit immensely by passage of H.R. 1904,” Gosar said in a release. “I call for the House and the Senate to vote on it immediately.”
But Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club of Arizona, questioned the job figures connected with the mining project. Resolution Copper’s parent companies, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, are “massive and they have increasingly moved toward automation,” she said.
The Sierra Club has repeatedly opposed legislation that approves the land swap.
“If they wanted to try to do this the right way, they would go through the National Environmental Policy Act,” Bahr said, referring to the Environment Protection Agency’s current procedures to approve use of federal land.
Flake said there is a disconnect between the federal government’s decisions and the realities of business in a state that is mostly public land.
“They’re standing in the way of private-sector jobs being created, just by blocking lands from use or standing against land exchanges that would allow that to happen,” he said after Thursday’s event.
The caucus report and McCain also called for the White House to submit free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress, saying that President Barack Obama has long hinted at the proposals but never acted.
“The president has yet to submit these free-trade agreements to the Congress of the United States for ratification,” McCain said. “Remarkable.”
Joshua Armstrong is a reporter for Cronkite News Service