The 1872 Mining Law, which gives away mineral resources and sells off public lands, governs the mining of “hardrock” minerals such as gold, copper, and uranium on western public lands. Unlike coal mining on federal lands, which is subject to significant royalty, reclamation and clean-up requirements, hardrock mining can take metals from public property in unlimited amounts virtually for free and is governed by few environmental standards. Coal mining on public land is governed by the Mineral Leasing Act. Under this law, which has been amended numerous times since its passage in 1920, the federal government retains ownership of lands leased for mining and recoups a royalty that is shared with the states.
There are striking contrasts in the details of the two laws, including the dramatic bottom line: From 1920 to 2000, royalties collected from coal mined on federal lands totaled $6,061,942,562. In contrast, no royalties have ever been collected under the 1872 Mining Law.