Trump Has Kneecapped Another Environmental Safeguard. Could That Spur Expanded Uranium Mining in South Texas?

Donald Trump fulfilled his vow to slash “intrusive” environmental regulations in favor of monied energy conglomerates. Shortly after taking office, he announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. In 2018, he moved to formally replace Barack Obama’s landmark Clean Power Plan. Trump lowered limits on methane emissions from drilling operations on public lands; stalled stricter rules for power plants that discharge mercury and other toxic contaminants into waterways; and intervened on behalf of Alaskan miners eyeing deposits beneath the country’s largest salmon run.

Altogether, The New York Times counts at least 95 environmental rules the president has rolled back, many of which are seen as a boon to the county’s energy sectors. Now you can add another reversal to the list: On Thursday, Trump announced that his administration will weaken a longstanding set of regulations designed to assess the environmental impact of proposed highways, oil and gas pipelines, and other large-scale projects. The president has taken aim at the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which for the past 50 years has required federal agencies to conduct comprehensive environmental reviews of projects before giving their seal of approval. 

The changes could have an outsized impact on rural Texas, where new sections of an interstate highway from Laredo to Texarkana are being hotly pursued and sweeping natural gas pipelines are creeping from West Texas to the Gulf. But it could also spur the development of widespread mining across South Texas, where a rare underground resource has largely been left untapped.

This part of Texas, starting just below San Antonio and moving south along the Gulf Coast, has long been known to host sizeable deposits of uranium oxide, also known as “yellowcake,” a crucial ingredient for producing nuclear power. The South Texas deposits are the third largest in the country, behind sections of Colorado and Wyoming. In 2015, the United States Geological Survey reported that it had located an additional 220 million pounds of uranium throughout the region’s sedimentary formations, a discovery that more than tripled the amount that had previously been identified. The news was met by the energy generation industry with little more than a shrug; uranium prices had been in the dumps since the 2011 power plant meltdown in Fukushima, Japan. At the time of the discovery, Corpus Christi-based Uranium Energy Corp. was the only company actively processing the radioactive ore in Texas, with mining sites in Goliad, Karnes, Live Oak, and Bee counties.

But today, some market watchers are bullish on uranium; after a 10-year slump, prices are looking to rebound due to low domestic supplies and tensions with Russia and China, who provide almost all of the uranium used in U.S. nuclear power plants. So it doesn’t hurt that the Trump administration has shoved aside pesky environmental regulations that irk energy producers.

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