Wyoming’s Trona Mines Prepare For Fight Over BLM’s Rock Springs Management Plan

Sweetwater County’s trona mines are among mining sectors upset by the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed Rock Springs Resource Management Plan, and they’re getting ready to fight about it.

Renée Jean

December 12, 20238 min read

Several processing facilities are working at one time to produce finished products, including baking soda, which will get shipped all over the country.
Several processing facilities are working at one time to produce finished products, including baking soda, which will get shipped all over the country. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Sweetwater County’s trona mines are among mining sectors troubled by the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed Rock Springs Resource Management Plan (RMP), and they’re getting ready to fight about it.

In draft comments provided to Cowboy State Daily, the Wyoming Mining Association writes that the concerns it is sending to the BLM about the proposal are intended to ensure they are on the record in preparation for future litigation.

“We’re looking at expansion projects out there to develop the trona resource and some of the things that my membership and my trona operators have identified in the draft RMP are going to make it very, very difficult, if not just quashing it altogether,” Wyoming Mining Association Executive Director Travis Deti told Cowboy State Daily. “If this does end up in court, we’ve crafted our comments in a way that could give us the standing needed.”

It’s also had mining operators and consultants do a deep dive into the BLM proposal,.

“So, we’ve taken this very seriously,” Deti said. “And hopefully we can continue to develop the resources and provide those tax revenues and those jobs to the state of Wyoming and, you know, keep the industry viable into the future, and then do our expansion project.”

Trona Has Huge Economic Impact

Wyoming Rep. Harriet Hageman, on a recent podcast for Cowboy State Daily, called out the BLM’s Rock Springs management proposal as devastating to the Cowboy State’s trona industry.

“The resource management plan, as you all know, that was recently announced by the BLM … affects 3.6 million acres in southwestern Wyoming,” she said on the podcast. “And it’s going to be absolutely devastating to our legacy industries, to our trona industry.

“We’re the largest trona producer in the nation,” Hageman continued. “If this goes through, we’re going to not be able to compete with China, and Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan.”

Wyoming’s Trona mines annually produce roughly 18 million tons of trona, which is processed into soda ash, based on the most recent figures available from 2021.

“I still haven’t gotten 2022 numbers, even though we are almost at the end of 2023,” Deti said. “But it’s been this way for the past several years, and so it’s pretty stable.”

Total taxes, royalties and fees for that production are worth $97 million to Wyoming, Deti said.

“On top of those taxes, royalties and fees, you’ve got an industry that’s worth about $470 million in the state of Wyoming,” he said. “So when you count in what you are paying your employees, which are really good-paying jobs, and the taxes we’re contributing to the state and local economies, it’s a pretty significant chunk of change.”

The trona industry in Wyoming, which is mostly located in Sweetwater County, is providing around 2,700 jobs.

That figure is expected to go up substantially with future expansion projects planned in the next decade, Deti added.

“So what’s at stake, you know, when you have an agency working plan like this going down the road of limiting access to the resource, whether it’s putting the actual rock off limits with a no leasing option, or whether you’re limiting access through where you can put your roads, where your corridors and wildlife are going to be, it’s troubling, and that’s why we’re causing such a big stink about it,” he said.

Billion-Dollar Projects Are Threatened

Two trona expansion projects are on the drawing boards now, Deti said.

“They are not going to be traditional mines,” he said. “They will be in situ mines, kind of similar to our uranium operations. They’ll be solution mines, which is basically a series of pumps in the ground that will pump the resource out.”

Trona is a water-soluble rock, so it can be dissolved and pumped back up to the surface for processing into soda ash.

“The two major projects are billion-dollar projects,” Deti said. “You’re probably looking at somewhere between 500 to 800 more employees in the Sweetwater County area (total).”

The Rock Springs proposal has caught many people flat-footed, Deti said. It’s a 180-degree change in direction from the traditional, multi-use concept that is spelled out in Congressional statutes that have long governed public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

“What we’re seeing lately is a clear switch in direction to prioritize conservation over responsible land use,” Deti said. “And that’s troubling. Our soda ash mines, our trona mines, are a unique natural resource anywhere in the world. The economic impact that would have on the state of Wyoming when you’re coming out with options that curtail the use of that land and curtail mining and restrict access to the resource is really troubling.”

Out Of The Blue

That about-face also happened without the customary interaction between the longstanding partners that are using those lands.

“The traditional way of doing these things with cooperation and communication with stakeholders at the state level and all those interested parties, it didn’t happen,” Deti said. “The BLM just kind of came out with these alternatives on their own, and there was no partnership in developing them. It really just came out of the blue.”

Another thing that’s troubling is that much of the data in the proposal appears to be outdated by as many as 10 years, Deti said.

That lack of data is likely linked to a lack of communication with industry and state agencies.

“They left out not only industry, but the state of Wyoming,” Deti said. “We have a Department of Environmental Quality that manages our land and our companies and our regulatory regimen, and they were left completely out of this. And it’s just frustrating, and, unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that we’re starting to see this stuff.”

The trona resource, Deti added, is managed very similar to coal resources in the Powder River Basin are managed.

“They are leasable minerals, and they’re owned by the federal government,” Deti said. “And earlier this year — which didn’t get much play — but there was another RMP supplemental environmental impact statement drawn up in the Powder River Basin out of the Buffalo Field office of the BLM, looking at coal resources.”

One of the options on that, which has not yet been decided, is a no leasing option, which would cut off any more leasing of federal coal.

“That effectively would put our coal resource off limits,” Deti said. “And of course, that is ridiculous.”

May Violate Federal Statutes

RMPs that just lop off leases to valuable resources might violate federal statutes, Deti suggested.

“A no leasing option is a de facto mineral withdrawal,” he said. “And there’s a process for that under the Mineral Leasing Act and in other federal laws. You’ve got to go through a process if you want to take a mineral off the table. You can’t do it administratively through an RMP, and you can’t do it by judicial fiat either.”

The Biden Administration has already run into that brick wall line of reasoning with oil and gas leases in other states, early in its administration.

For example, it had tried to use the resource management plan process to stop or delay quarterly sales of oil and gas leases on public land in North Dakota in 2022. But a U.S. District Court judge ordered the Bureau of Land Management to resume the sales, ruling that the agency had a mandatory, statutory duty to plan and timely complete the analyses of individual parcels for oil and gas lease sales on federal lands, that it could not discharge through the RMP process.

“The federal defendants effectively conceded as much when they told this court no determinations of availability were made in North Dakota during Q4 2022,” Judge Daniel Traynor wrote in his ruling. He went on to add, “the president also proceeded to say the quiet part out loud when he announced to the public there would be ‘no more drilling’ in November 2022.”

Renée Jean can be reached at renee@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter