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Higher Education and Mining Law
“The Current Status of Cyanide Regulations” is based on a presentation that Professor Jan Laitos from the University of Denver gave at E&MJ’s Mineral Processing Conference. He has litigated several cases for mining companies, most notably an effort to overturn Montana’s I-137, which prevented Canyon Resources from opening the Seven-Up Pete mine. Before introducing him, we discussed over dinner how mining law in the U.S. is being taught.
Today, in the U.S., there are more than 170 law schools that are training students in law and legal disciplines, many of whom will become lawyers. Among these law schools, readers might be surprised to learn that there are few tenured or full-time tenure track professors who teach or who are dedicated to teaching mining law. Mining law today is taught primarily by “adjunct” or part-time professors, typically lawyers from firms who work in the field of mining law. As an example, Laitos said that he, as a law professor, writes survey books in the area of natural resources law of which one topic might be mining law. The University of Denver, Laitos explained, probably does a better job than most universities to try to emphasize the world of mining because of its location.
It seems the days of having a law professor who writes and publishes extensively in the field of mining law, and who has experience on the topic of hard rock mining, may be numbered. The usual exposure that law students have today with respect to mining law would come from what they read in an environmental law case where the focus would be on the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, etc., as it applies to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or environmental activists trying to stop an operating mine or keep a potential mine from being permitted. Sadly, Laitos commented, environmental law is often the context by which law students are being trained today with respect to mining law.
In the future, one of the areas of concern for companies operating mines in the U.S. should be centered around this trend where, in law schools, the emphasis is not on mining law or extractive industries law (e.g., oil and gas law), but rather the environmental dimensions of permitting a mine, or the many ways that environmental law may be used to attack a mining company. The idea of training individuals on how to get a mine up and working, and survive in this regulatory environment of environmental law, is one that may be taught in engineering programs, but it is not typically taught in American law schools.
While they understand his frustration, not all attorneys practicing law in mining share Laitos’ sentiments. They agree mining law as a discrete subject worthy of a full-time law professor has become an endangered species, but they also believe that it is a function of demand. If law students are not demanding it, universities are not going to offer it. Those that do seek more education and training are finding it from other sources such as the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation. As far as a dying discipline, the foundation not only educates western U.S. lawyers on mining, but it has also started to offer courses abroad and these services are in high demand.