Several years ago in this space, we commented on the various legal shakedowns conducted by various environmental groups. One of the more egregious examples noted was the practice known as “sue and settle.” In this scam, an environmental group like the Natural Resource Defense Council, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, etc., would file a “friendly” lawsuit against a federal agency, usually the Environmental Protection Agency. The lawsuit was “friendly” in the sense that the greens wanted the federal administrators to do what the administrators wanted to do but legally couldn’t or at least not without serious political blowback.

In the “sue and settle” scam, the federal administrators would settle the suit, caving in to the green group’s demands, and claim they did it to save the public money. (How often do you see federal administrators worry about taxpayers’ money?) Then the EPA would pay the plaintiff’s legal costs, subsidizing the lawsuits against it. (Saving taxpayers’ money?)

Twelve states’ attorneys generals filed suit against the EPA over a practice they claimed violated the Administrative Procedures Act. The lead attorney general in the suit was Oklahoma’s Scott Pruitt, who now just happens to be administrator of the EPA. So it should be no surprise that, in mid-October, Pruitt announced an end to “sue and settle.”

The Sierra Club’s response was unsurprising:

“This week, Scott Pruitt and his polluter cronies are aggressively perpetrating the lie they call “sue and settle” as a way of refusing to enforce our nation’s critical environmental laws. On Monday, Pruitt announced that the Environmental Protection Agency would avoid settling lawsuits with public interest groups and instead would lean toward fighting cases in court. But don’t be fooled: This is a phony remedy in search of a problem to solve.”

The Sierra Club’s piece goes on to make some valid points. In most cases the lawsuits were procedural, forcing the EPA to make decisions after a deadline had been missed. OK, but that begs the question of why taxpayers are paying the Sierra Club’s legal fees. It also ignores the issue of collusion between green groups and a federal agency important to natural resource industries like mining.

Another case in point that has been recently revealed concerns the Pebble Mine in southwestern Alaska. Most press coverage of the mine has described it as a threat to the salmon in Bristol Bay. However, the mine is not on Bristol Bay – it’s over 100 miles away. That puts it close enough to do potential harm because it is in the bay’s watershed, but before the mine’s developer, Northern Dynasty, submitted permit applications, an EPA employee was allegedly collaborating with local Native American groups to generate public opposition to it. The status of the project, a large copper, gold and molybdenum deposit, is still uncertain.

We have seen similar incidents in Nevada and elsewhere but with a twist that does not need to involve the EPA. Native American groups are eligible for legal assistance through the Bureau of Indian Affairs for various matters from normal civil and criminal matters to tribal law and organization. No problem, except that a cottage industry has developed around these “free” legal services that actually makes them quite expensive. Lawyers specializing in all sorts of fields actively solicit Native American plaintiffs to represent them in lawsuits against defendants of all kinds, including mining companies just like what happened several years ago with Barrick’s Cortez mine. For the native groups, there is no risk, and for the lawyers, everything to gain.

John Dobra is an associate professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Business and has almost 30 years experience consulting for mining companies. Dobra is a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, has been published in academic journals and has testified in Congress on mining issues.

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