Massive Obama land lockup threatens nuclear future

President Obama’s commitment to “all of the above” energy development apparently does not include nuclear power in light of a January 2012 order issued by his Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, locking-up a million acres of federal land in northwestern Arizona that holds the Nation’s highest-grade uranium ore. That is according to lawsuits filed in Arizona federal district court by two mining groups-the Northwest Mining Association of Spokane, Washington, and the National Mining Association of Washington, D.C. allied with the Nuclear Energy Institute-challenging the legality and the constitutionality of the order.

“The Arizona Strip,” which lies north of the Colorado River in northern Arizona, is bordered to the south by the northern rim of Grand Canyon National Park. In the 1984 Arizona Wilderness Act, Congress designated 250,000 acres of federal land on or near the Arizona Strip as wilderness and released 600,000 acres of land in the same area for multiple use, including uranium mining, as a result of an historic compromise among environmental groups, uranium mining interests, the livestock industry, and others. It was that compromise that permitted exploration for domestic sources of uranium. In fact, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, lands withdrawn by Salazar’s order contain uranium that, if mined to capacity, would generate sufficient electricity to power the City of Los Angeles for 154 years.

Experts believe the United States must develop domestic sources of uranium in the face of higher prices and increased global demand. America is over 90% dependent on foreign sources of uranium to fuel the 104 nuclear reactors that provide power for 1 in 5 American homes and businesses. A major source of U.S. imports is uranium from dismantled Russian warheads; however, the agreement under which the U.S. purchases that uranium expires in 2013. There is currently a global supply shortfall of about 40 million pounds of uranium per year, which comes from existing stockpiles. With nuclear power generation around the world projected to increase substantially-even after Fukushima-these shortfalls will increase and stockpiles will dwindle. There are 435 nuclear reactors operating worldwide, but, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, there are 65 reactors under construction and 491 reactors planned or proposed around the world. The World Nuclear Association estimates that there will be between 602 and 1,350 reactors in the world by 2030, a 38% to 210% increase. Therefore, worldwide competition for uranium will increase dramatically.

Nonetheless, environmental groups consistently attack efforts to develop domestic sources of uranium. For example, at the national level, leasing of uranium lands by the U.S. Department of Energy was halted by a lawsuit by environmental groups demanding more study. At the state level, a permit issued by Colorado for a uranium mill in economically hard-pressed Montrose County is under attack by environmental groups. Meanwhile, in 2009, Salazar joined in the assault by proposing to withdraw the million acres in Arizona to “protect the Grand Canyon watershed.” After environmental studies that found no significant risk of environmental harm, Salazar issued an “emergency” withdrawal order in June 2011.

According to the lawsuit, Salazar’s order violates the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The lawsuit also complains that the FLPMA’s provision permitting the Secretary to make withdrawals in excess of 5,000 acres is unconstitutional because it is linked inextricably to FLPMA’s legislative veto provision, which unconstitutionally permits Congress to veto Secretarial withdrawal orders in excess of 5,000 acres. That is, Congress, which with the passage of FLPMA reasserted its constitutional authority over federal lands, would not have authorized the Secretary to withdraw more than 5,000 acres if Congress did not retain the right to reject any such order.

If America is to have a nuclear energy future, a federal court, perhaps the Supreme Court of the United States, will have to issue the order opening the door to that future.

Mr. Pendley, a Wyoming ­attorney, is President and Chief Legal ­Officer of Mountain States Legal Foundation and a regular ­c­olum­nist in ­Loggers World.