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What Utah Gov. Spencer Cox talked about with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

GOP governor highlight critical mineral mining in West

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Gov. Spencer Cox, left, listens as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks during a press conference.

Gov. Spencer Cox, left, listens as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks during a press conference at Edge of the Cedars Park Museum in Blanding on April 8, 2021. Cox asked Haaland about the future of mining critical minerals in Utah during the Western Governors’ Association winter meeting in California.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As the Biden administration continues to promote green energy over fossil fuels, critical minerals — and the Western states where they are mined — will play a key role in the transition.

That was at the heart of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s question to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Thursday during the Western Governors’ Association winter meeting in California. Leaders from around the West discussed wildfires, energy, public lands, and collaboration between state and federal governments at the two-day conference.

“We hear reports that as we move to clean energy, and specifically batteries for electric vehicles, that by the year 2025 we’re going to be running short of copper and some of these other critical minerals,” Cox said, noting that many federally recognized critical minerals, including cobalt, lithium and magnesium, are mined in Utah.

“Most of them are on land that is managed by Interior,” Cox, a Republican, said.

He pointed to a meeting earlier in the year with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who “mentioned the importance of those critical minerals and mining in the U.S. And we’d love to hear that same enthusiasm from Interior.”

Haaland responded by telling Cox “of course President Biden believes in energy independence for our country.”

Haaland touched on workplace safety, pay, benefits and other ways to support workers in an industry that experts say is set to explode, telling Cox it’s “important that we uphold all of those issues, rightly so, in our country.”

“That is absolutely a conversation that we’re always willing to have. And we’ll connect on that very easily. But you’re absolutely right. In this transition, there’s many, many things to think about,” Haaland said. “We all know the transition to clean energy is an important one. I think all of us working together is the best way to get there.”

With the expanding electric car market, minerals like copper, nickel, cobalt and graphite will be increasingly sought after. Zinc, silicon and chromium are also needed for wind, solar and nuclear power, which will get a boost under the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure bill.

The infrastructure bill and collaboration between Haaland’s department and Western states continued to be the focus of discussion Thursday.

Republican North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said the bill puts states in a position where they have “lots of dollars, but short on data,” telling Haaland that they want to be sure they’re making the most of the infrastructure money.

“I am confident that if everyone puts their heads together, they’ll figure out what they need,” she responded.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, highlighted her state’s devastating wildfire season, asking Haaland how states and the federal government can work more efficiently, after over 800,000 acres were torched in Oregon over the summer.

“We have to make sure we’re collaborating with folks on the ground because that’s where the work is happening,” she said, before telling Brown “when there’s not wildfires, we want to be working on other things to hopefully prevent the next big wildfire.”

Monuments, Utah and the Interior Department

Although it was absent from Cox’s question on Thursday, Utah’s national monuments has been a source of contention between the governor’s office and Haaland’s department.

Biden’s move to restore both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to their original size after they was reduced by former President Donald Trump was condemned by Utah’s governor and many Republican lawmakers. Haaland penned a letter to Biden in June asking the president to restore the monuments.

Cox called it “disappointing, though not surprising.”

“We expected and hoped for closer collaboration between our state and national leaders, especially on matters that directly impact Utah and our citizens. The president’s decision to enlarge the monuments again is a tragic missed opportunity — it fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research, and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer,” he said in an October statement.

Cox said Utah would likely sue should Biden act “unilaterally” on the monuments, and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is currently exploring the feasibility of a lawsuit to scale back both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Bears Ears, a culturally rich region of southern Utah, was designated by President Barack Obama who was pressed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, comprised of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni.