Mining law is the collection of laws and regulations that apply to mining activities. There are a diverse set of laws and rules that directly and indirectly govern mining in the United States. Mining laws determine who can mine, where they can mine and how they may go about mining.
Mining laws include federal, state and local laws and regulations
Mining laws come from a number of sources. The federal government has laws that govern mining on both public and private property. In addition, states and local governments often have a great deal to say about mining activities. Mining laws may come directly from the legislature, or they may come in the form of administrative regulations created by a government agency. The practice of mining law includes recognizing that regulations might come from a number of sources. Mining lawyers must know where to look for laws, and they must implement laws that may come from a number of governing bodies.
Mining on federal lands
The U.S. government allows mining on federal lands in some circumstances. The General Mining Law of 1872 allows miners to search for minerals on federal lands. If they want to mine, they may purchase mining rights on the land. The person or agency who finds the resources may have the right to exclusive mining activities in the area. Today, mining operations on federal lands extract resources worth billions of dollars each year.
In addition to the General Mining Law of 1872, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 also governs mining on public lands in the United States. Generally, private entities may mine on public lands if the proposed mining meets certain criteria. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 provides for the protection of public lands. Miners may only conduct an activity where they meet criteria that are meant to protect the environment and the integrity of public lands.
Laws for government agencies
Even government agencies have laws to follow that may impact mining activities. The National Environmental Policy Act requires all government agencies to submit environmental impact statements about their proposed activities. The Act requires agencies to consider and report on their activities that may impact the environment. The environmental impact statements accompany information and requests for government funding for agency activities.
Additional federal mining laws
There are a number of federal laws that impact mining activities:
- Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 – Non-metallic resources like oil and shale are not subject to claim stakers. That means private parties can’t look for them and claim them to mine on federal lands.
- Mineral Materials Act of 1947 – Provides for the sale or other disposition of federal resources like gravel and sand.
- Clean Air Act of 1970 – Creates air quality standards that miners must follow
- Federal Water Pollution Control Act – Governs discharges to water sources
- Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 – Requires a specific recording procedure for mining claims on federal lands. Claimants lose their right to mine the land if they don’t follow procedures.
- Endangered Species Act – Protects endangered species from activities that may harm their habitats.
Rights to begin mining
On public or private lands, there are a number of rights and authorizations that a person or entity must have in order to lawfully begin their activity. First, they must have the mineral rights to mine on the property. Generally, property law states that a property owner owns their land up to the heavens and down to the depths of the earth. That is, if they own the land, they control what happens underneath it including mining. Of course, one of the things that a miner must do is take care to avoid damaging the property of another.
Even though a property owner typically owns the mineral rights to their property, mineral rights can be leased or sold. A property owner might maintain ownership of the surface property but sell the right to mine the land. They might also lease the right to mine the land. Buying or leasing mineral rights comes with the understanding that the purchaser gets reasonable access to the property in order to conduct their activities.
Other necessary permits and permissions for mining activity include:
- A plan of operations
- Air quality permits
- Drilling permissions
- Hazardous waste storage and transfer authorization
- Permits for artificial pond use
- Road use and right of way authorizations
- Safety plans for dam activities
- Water quality permits
- Water rights
Miners must understand that different rules may apply to different kinds of minerals. The rules for mining gold may be different than the rules for mining sand or gravel. Miners may have to apply to federal, state and local authorities for the necessary permits and permissions to conduct their work.
Types of laws that impact mining
In addition to needing a variety of permits and permissions, there are a number of types of law that impact mining law. A mining lawyer may use and encounter any of the following types of law in their work:
- Contract law – Miners must contract with other parties just like any other business. Whether they contract for mining services, transportation of mined resources or contract to sell what they extract, miners use contracts to conduct business.
- Property law – Disputes may turn into litigation when parties can’t agree on property use. In addition to land ownership and the right to mine, miners need to ensure that their activities don’t cause a nuisance or infringe on the property rights of others.
- Occupational safety laws – Mining can be a dangerous activity. There are standards that miners must comply with to keep their employees safe. Mining law requires miners to understand and implement laws designed for employee safety.
- Employment law and union negotiations – Mining law includes employment laws that apply to all businesses. Pay, workers compensation and union negotiations can all be employment law issues that impact the mining industry.
How did mining laws develop?
There were few mining laws in the United States before the General Mining Act of 1872. Even during the California Gold Rush of 1849, there were few laws to govern mining activities. Many localities created their own customs to govern activity. Local miners often adopted Mexican laws that allow the person who discovers the resource to mine it. Rules were very similar in each mining camp. The General Mining Act of 1872 codified what was already custom in most mining communities.
State mining laws
Mining laws vary by state. Some states may have a great deal to say about mining with numerous state laws that control activities. States typically have a government agency that oversees mining in the state. State laws may cover topics like environmental quality, taxation, inspections and mining on state-owned land.
Who practices mining law?
Mining lawyers may create mining laws on behalf of a government agency, or they may implement mining laws on behalf of their private clients. Mining lawyers work in significant numbers in both the public and private sectors. Public sector mining attorneys work for both state and federal agencies.
The practice of mining law includes understanding and implementing laws from a large number of sources. Much of the practice of mining law is regulatory and administrative. By carefully complying with laws, mining parties can avoid litigation and enforcement actions that may make their work more challenging. Mining lawyers live and work throughout the United States.
Why Become a Mining Lawyer?
Mining law can provide a stable and rewarding career that allows an attorney to develop a high level of skill in a niche field. Mining lawyers are critical to mining work. Private lawyers perform a valuable service for their clients while public lawyers play a critical role in developing and enforcing mining laws. Lawyers who practice mining law enjoy a career that touches on many areas of law including property law, contract law and employment law. Mining law is an in-demand niche area of law that calls for a high amount of knowledge and skill.
Pursuing a career in mining law
The United States has a rich history of mining activity. Mining activities occurred in the United States before laws existed to govern the activity. Mining law involves a number of complex areas of law. Mining lawyers must understand the federal, state and local regulations that govern mining activities. Attorneys who practice mining law may enjoy a challenging and diverse practice that impacts a multi-billion dollar industry.