A Pathway to Responsible Mining in Indian Country

The demand for minerals critical to both the energy transition and U.S. national security is growing rapidly. At the same time, the reliability of the global supply chain is being challenged by geopolitical events. The result is a growing call to bring more mining for these critical minerals back to the United States, where the vast majority of critical mineral reserves are located on or within 35 miles of Native American reservations.

Tribal communities are some of the poorest in communities in the United States. Even though they are collectively the largest landowners outside the federal government, Native Americans continue to experience persistent poverty by every measure. How can the United States have a legitimate critical minerals discussion knowing that its most vulnerable population sits on the largest concentration of mineral wealth left in this nation? 

Historically, mining on tribal lands has been a tale of economic exploitation, abrogated agreements, stolen lands, environmental disasters, and life-altering health impairments inflicted on the Native American community. Indian country continues to grapple with the consequences to this day. On Navajo lands alone, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted between 1944 and 1989. This has caused lingering health problems for the Navajo people, from both environmental contamination at the mine and mill sites, and from living in houses built with mine and mill waste.

Today, there is a generational opportunity to learn from this very difficult history and introduce a new age of equitable U.S. mining in partnership with tribal communities. Modern sustainable techniques can limit the physical impact of mining and processing activities, and new international protocols have been developed around the world, such as in Canada, to ensure local tribal communities are engaged throughout the process. Unlike most current policies in the United States, these protocols are mandated to seek the consent of local Indigenous peoples before regulatory approval is given.

The potential for tribes to benefit from mining is significant. An example is the Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada. This mine, which is expected to produce enough lithium to supply batteries to roughly one million electric vehicles per year, will at its peak provide 1,100 jobs. The project is located on federal land that are the traditional lands of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe and is culturally, historically, and spiritually significant to the tribe.

Tribes can benefit from the Thacker Pass project and others like it by working with developers on community benefits plans (CBPs). These CPBs could include commitments related to construction of the mine related to jobs, workforce development, childcare service capacity and procurement opportunities for tribal member businesses to sell goods and services to the mine. In the long term, the CPBs could include entrepreneurial-focused initiatives, such as business incubation, educational scholarships, housing, and access to clean water and electricity for tribal members.

Most importantly, any new approach to mining in the American West should recognize and respect tribal sovereignty, and provide tribes more control over and access to mining profits. This might be as simple as granting affected tribes an ownership stake, a strategy that was constitutionally provided for in Alaska in 1971 and benefited the communities surrounding the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska, but has never been enjoyed elsewhere in the United States.

A logical further ambition is for tribes to develop the capacity to run their own mining companies, staffed with leadership and engineering talent from tribal communities. In order to do this, potential tribal developers need to gain expertise in the mining and processing of critical minerals, which is different from the sand and gravel enterprises, coal mines, or oil and natural gas drilling they know well.

It is worth noting that the Interagency Working Group on Mining Laws, Regulations, and Permitting, in its recently issued final report on ways to improve the way mining is conducted on U.S. public lands, included recommendations that would help tribes negotiate CPBs. Specifically, the report recommended early and regular tribal engagement on the design of a new leasing system and environmental review processes and to provide “Grants for Tribes and communities to obtain technical assistance, or support technical reviews during permitting, engagement and consultations.”

If the United States is going to develop new critical minerals domestically, it needs to find a new pathway that acknowledges sins of the past, is inclusive to local Native American communities, encourages the financial participation of tribal governments, and provides a legitimate social license to operate.

At least three things can help: First, a national dialogue is needed immediately. The long and sordid history of battle between tribal communities, federal and state governments, the mining industry, and environmental groups, as well as disagreements between and within tribal communities, should be resolved. This begins with a full and formal acknowledgement of inequities, both past and present. What could initially be uncomfortable lines of communication have to be established between former adversaries and a common agreement of basic tribal rights established before the United States can move forward as a country. 

Second, existing U.S. laws and regulations should be updated and improved to include new protocols that are more in line with today’s international community and seek not just consultation with affected tribal communities, but their consent. It is imperative that tribal governments and their citizens be adequately consulted and included in any proposed mine’s planning, development, construction, and ultimate reclamation—from the start, and on their terms.

Third, the federal government needs to create an ecosystem that will allow tribally owned corporations to invest profits into creating and increasing wealth and income over the next decades. New federal economic incentives would greatly accelerate this effort. Tax policy levers could be considered that would make critical minerals development on tribal lands more economically attractive. This could incorporate existing tax credit-based programs, like Opportunity Zones, New Market Tax Credits, or Production and Investment Tax Credits, to specifically encouraging investment in critical mineral operations on tribal lands. There could also be new specific tax credits for things like hiring Native American employees to support critical mineral development and operations.

Tribal communities have sacrificed enormously on behalf of the American people for centuries. Now they are being asked once again to offer their lands in the name of a greater good. Their willingness to do so is deeply inspiring and deserves the best of the American people and their government. It also deserves real and lasting economic and social benefits to the tribes.

Daniel Cardenas

CEO, President, and Chairman, Board of the American Indian Infrastructure Association and National Tribal Energy Association

Rick Tallman

Program Manager, Center for Native American Mining and Energy Sovereignty, Payne Institute for Public Policy, Colorado School of Mines

Brad Handler

Program Lead, Sustainable Finance Lab, Payne Institute for Public Policy, Colorado School of Mines
Morgan Bazilian
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program