Congress

Seeking to shrink Bears Ears, uranium firm met with Interior before review

House panel plans oversight hearing on monuments next week

The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on a review that led to substantially reduced boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. A company tied to mineral interests there met with a senior Interior Department official nearly a month before President Donald Trump requested the review. (George Frey/Getty Images file photo)

A meeting between an Interior Department official and a company tied to mineral interests in the Bears Ears National Monument area — almost a month before President Donald Trump requested a review that substantially reduced its boundaries — may end up in the crosshairs of House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva.

Documents show that Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc., a subsidiary of a Canadian energy firm, met with a top Interior official who would be involved with the review before Trump requested it.

When President Barack Obama designated the monument in December 2016, its boundaries encompassed or abutted over 350 uranium claims tied to the company. Its uranium processing mill, the only such facility in the United States, was located mere miles from the monument. Proximity to a national monument can lead to additional regulatory scrutiny. 

In December 2017, Trump, following recommendations by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that were developed during the review, significantly reduced the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Trump’s revamped boundaries for Bears Ears also likely removed all of more than 100 uranium claims tied to Energy Fuels. 

The Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold its first oversight hearing on the monuments review on March 13, said Adam Sarvana, communications director for the panel’s Democrats.

The committee has invited Zinke, who resigned and left last December amid corruption charges, to attend. But he declined, according to Sarvana.

Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, plans to investigate the monuments review. 

He said if an individual involved with the review met with Energy Fuels before the review began, “all my suspicions as to the motivation behind the shrinkage would be validated.”

“I think it would make our need to get at the bottom of it. … It would make it even more significant,” he said.

In statements, both Interior and Energy Fuels Resources confirmed the meeting on April 5, 2017. Interior’s monument review began April 26.

Curtis Moore, Energy Fuels Resources vice president of marketing and corporate development, said in a Feb. 26 email, “Our recollection is that the April meeting was very brief, but we did inquire about the possibility of minor boundary adjustments to move the boundaries away from our existing operations.”

“Nonetheless, our official request was for minor boundary adjustments that would have reduced the area of the monument by a maximum of 2.6 percent. The President reduced the monument by 85 percent. We didn’t ask for that,” Moore said.

Critics don’t believe Energy Fuels’ account, pointing to a comment letter filed during the review suggesting there could be many uranium deposits within the boundaries of the monument that could provide “valuable energy and mineral resources in the future.”

They say the meeting is proof Interior’s 2017 assessment had a predetermined outcome of shrinking Bears Ears to benefit the uranium sector generally and Energy Fuels Resources specifically.

“The Trump Administration’s agenda has always been sell out our public lands first and manufacture a rationale — predicated on false information — afterwards. This latest revelation shows yet again they don’t even care to hide their dangerous motives so long as they can please the corporate polluters that have directed their every move,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.

Emails released in two different Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by the Sierra Club against Interior and the EPA also show Andrew Wheeler, confirmed Feb. 28 as the new EPA administrator, was integral to getting Energy Fuels Resources’ foot in the door before the review.

Citing his prior work on the Trump presidential campaign, Wheeler reached out to set up the meeting and attended it. His contacts with Interior during that period are not included in his lobbying disclosures. The firm he was working for, Faegre Baker Daniels, said it is reviewing those disclosures.

In a statement, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said the matter had nothing to do with Wheeler’s role at the agency.

“[He] has been very transparent concerning his work with Energy Fuels Resources, even discussing this during his confirmation process. He has consistently worked to comply with the Lobbying Disclosure Act; this particular matter involving Energy Fuels Resources and Bears Ears National Monument does not impact his work at EPA as this is not an agency-related issue,” Abboud said.

Uranium prospects

Previous reports by The Washington Post and The New York Times have outlined how coal, oil and other fossil fuel interests may have factored into the decisions made during the monuments review.

But Zinke, when he visited Bears Ears during the review, rejected the oil and gas argument.

“We … have a pretty good idea of the oil and gas potential, so Bears Ears really isn’t about oil and gas at all,” Zinke told reporters in May 2017 while touring Bears Ears. “There is some uranium. [I’m] more concerned about the present mill and the proximity to it.”

Energy Fuels owns that mill, known as White Mesa. Bears Ears’ original boundaries came within six miles of the site, the only operational uranium processing mill in the United States. The monument was also 15 miles from its Daneros Mine, which is not operating but may reopen if the price of uranium rises.

A national monument, as well as any subsequent changes to federal regulations, could “significantly adversely impact” those projects and “could have a material adverse impact on the company,” Energy Fuels’ corporate filings stated.

During the monuments review, the company raised several concerns. It noted the monument included a portion of road used for accessing the mine and encompassed air and water quality monitoring sites required under federal regulations.

Energy Fuels Resources also complained that the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental review had stalled expansion of Daneros and could affect future operations at White Mesa. If the Daneros expansion could be held up, the company wrote,  the boundaries “could have a chilling effect on future land uses not only within but also near the monument.”

The company has at least 235 active claims on uranium deposits near both Daneros and White Mesa, according to a review of Bureau of Land Management data by Grand Canyon Trust, a public lands advocacy and watchdog group.

The trust’s review showed that over 100 claims within the original monument boundaries are held by Tigris Uranium Corporation, a subsidiary of enCore Energy Corporation, which it received after it sold those claims to the company in 2015. According to Energy Fuels’ annual corporate filings, it owns at least a 12.8 percent stake in enCore.

When Trump shrank the monument in December 2017 from 1.35 million acres to a little over 200,000 acres, the new boundaries excluded all of those claims, according to Grand Canyon Trust. 

Those deposits aren’t worth much now because the price of uranium is so low. The company has said some of its mines, like Daneros, are on standby for this reason.

However, the Trump administration is weighing whether it will set tariffs on cheaper foreign imports of uranium. That effort, spurred by a petition to the Commerce Department by the firm and another company involved in uranium mining, Ur-Energy, could result in reactivating Daneros.

In its comment letter filed during the monument review, Energy Fuels noted “many other known uranium and vanadium deposits located within the newly created BENM that could provide valuable energy and mineral resources in the future.”

It requested “any boundary revision provide an adequate buffer between the White Mesa mill, the Daneros mine and all valid existing mineral rights such that there will be no impact to our lawful existing or future operations.”

In an email, Moore said that the company only asked for “very minor boundary adjustments” and that it supports a mining ban on the lands formerly within the monument that Trump removed. He provided two maps which he said were what they suggested to Interior during the review, each showing only minor reductions near the White Mesa and Daneros properties.

“We didn’t ask for a larger reduction. All along, we were simply seeking minor boundary adjustments to create buffers between our existing operations and the monument,” Moore said. “I’m not sure how we can be more clear, we have no interest in mining inside of BENM.”

Groups supportive of the monument’s original boundaries are not convinced.

“You want to take people at their word, but the comment letter is pretty clear,” said Tim Peterson, cultural landscapes program director for Grand Canyon Trust.

‘Preordained’ decision?

When Energy Fuels first reached out to Interior, it only mentioned the mill and the mine.

“I worked on energy and environmental policy for Mr. Trump during the campaign. I have a client that I would like to get before the Secretary, Energy Fuels,” Wheeler wrote in a March 27 email to Amanda Kaster, at the time one of Zinke’s aides.

“They have two uranium facilities bordering each side of Bears Ears national monument in Utah. They can come to DC at any time. What is the best way for me to request a meeting with the Secretary? I’m just not sure who I should reach out to,” Wheeler said.

On April 5, Wheeler, Energy Fuels executive William Paul Goranson, and Darrin Munoz, another lobbyist at Faegre Baker Daniels, met with Kathleen Benedetto, at the time a senior adviser to Zinke, according to visitor logs and Benedetto’s schedule. Her schedule was first obtained by independent journalist Jimmy Tobias via a public records request.

Through an Interior spokeswoman, Benedetto said she alone took the meeting and Zinke did not participate. Zinke’s personal schedule has an hourlong period, 30 minutes after the meeting began, during which his whereabouts are unaccounted for.

In a statement, Benedetto said she didn’t recall the meeting with the “same specificity” as the uranium firm. She did note she recalled “passing along some information that the company provided that included a map of its facilities relative to the Bears Ears boundary.”

According to an Interior spokeswoman, she likely relayed that information to Downey Magallanes, who was at the time a special assistant to Zinke and would become a point person on the eventual monuments review. Magallanes and Benedetto’s schedules both show they had a one-on-one meeting later that day.

Energy Fuels Resources was not the only party to lobby for reducing Bears Ears. Its designation was staunchly opposed by the Utah congressional delegation, most prominently former GOP Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, and state politicians. They said oil and gas deposits within the monument’s boundaries could have been used for raising money for public schools and feared losing such a revenue source.

However, Aaron Weiss, deputy director for the Center for Western Priorities, said Interior confirming it held a meeting to discuss cuts to Bears Ears before the review began in earnest is “admitting that they were already going after monument boundaries even before the president ordered the review.”

“This monument review was a sham, and the outcome was preordained,” said Weiss, whose public lands advocacy group is a frequent critic of the Trump administration’s policies.

When asked about suggestions the monument’s review was predetermined, the Interior Department declined to comment.

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