WASHINGTON – The House voted Wednesday to swap more than 2,400 acres of copper-rich federal land in Pinal County with a mining company that plans to develop the third-largest undeveloped copper resource in the world.
Resolution Copper Mining said the project would bring 3,700 jobs and up to $61 billion to the region over 40 years. The company is giving the government more than 5,300 acres of land in exchange.
“What this basically does is it shows what a real jobs package is,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, who sponsored the bill. “Well-paying jobs in a community without taxpayer dollars.”
But critics call the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2011 a “giveaway” of valuable U.S. minerals to a foreign-owned company – Resolution Copper is owned by London-based Rio Tinto and Australia-based BHP Billiton.
“Two foreign companies essentially can take their product, make billions of dollars in profit off our land and our minerals and not pay a penny to the American taxpayer,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson. “That’s wrong.”
The 235-186 vote for the bill fell largely along party lines, and followed two hours of heated debate and several unsuccessful attempts to amend the measure.
Gosar’s is the latest in a series of bills proposing the land swap, but the first to be voted on by the full House. It still has to pass the Senate and head to the president, whose administration opposes the bill.
Debate on the measure centered on the true number of jobs the mine would create and on how much money it would actually generate. Opponents also charged the project’s demand for water would damage the region’s environment.
Grijlava argued that initial estimates of 450 jobs from the project jumped to 3,700 without supporting evidence. He said he doubts the higher estimate because Rio Tinto is a “pioneer” in automating mining activity and that the jobs would largely be filled by “robots.”
But supporters of the bill rejected the suggestion.
“This isn’t the Jetsons doing this,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa. “These are real people, not robots.”
The Pinal County deposit is estimated to contain enough copper to satisfy a quarter of U.S. demand for the next 40 years.
Supporters believe that the land swap would have a doubly positive effect by diminishing reliance on foreign minerals while boosting the American economy. But critics say there is no guarantee in the plan to keep the copper, or the resulting revenue, in the U.S.
Resolution Copper said it already employs 500 people in the planning stages of the mine and, if the swap is approved, would add an additional 1,400 jobs for the 10-year construction of the mine.
An estimated 3,700 more jobs would last through the life of the mine, said Jon Cherry, vice president of environmental, legal and external affairs for Resolution Copper.
Critics have also charged that the mine threatens lands that have spiritual value to area Indian tribes. And by making the swap now, they say, the mining company will have no incentive to consult on that issue with Native Americans and other stakeholders.
“After a land trade, that becomes private property. There is nothing that can be done to enforce any regulatory issues that might come up,” Grijalva said.
But Resolution Copper said tribes have rejected its invitations to discuss the issues. The company said it has worked closely with rock-climbing groups that want to protect their recreational land.
Grijalva and other opponents proposed five amendments that, among other things, would have required that the project only hire Arizonans, that all the copper from the mine remain in the United States and that the company pay the federal government an 8 percent royalty on project revenues.
In a last-ditch attempt to derail the measure, Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., charged that Rio Tinto co-owns a uranium mine in Namibia with the government of Iran, which is believed to be developing nuclear weapons. Deutch’s proposal to block a swap with any company doing business with Iran was rejected.
Rio Tinto said later in a prepared statement that “we believe we are complying” with a United Nations resolution aimed at keeping Iran “from acquiring an interest in any commercial activity involving uranium mining.”
While Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said he supports land swap with Resolution Copper, Grijalva said he expects the fight to continue in the Senate.
“I’m optimistic (that) if senators were listening to this debate that they’re going to think twice,” he said.
The proposed exchange:
Resolution Copper would get:
- 2,422 acres of the Oak Flat federal parcel in northeast Pinal County
The federal government would get 5,344 acres:
- 147 acres of the Turkey Creek parcel in Gila County
- 148 acres of the Tangle Creek parcel in Yavapai County
- 149 acres of the Cave Creek parcel in Maricopa County
- 640 acres of the East Clear Creek parcel in Coconino County
- 110 acres of the Apache Leap South End parcel in Pinal County
- 3,050 acres of the Lower San Pedro River lands in Pinal County
- 160 acres of the Dripping Springs area in Gila and Pinal counties
- 940 acres of the Appleton Ranch area in Santa Cruz County
The Town of Superior could buy up to 545 acres from the government:
- 30 acres of the Fairview Cemetery Parcel in Pinal County
- 265 acres around Superior Airport in Pinal County
- 250 acres of parcels contiguous to the airport land
Max Levy is a reporter for Cronkite News Service