By Ernest Scheyder
(Reuters) – The full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said on Thursday it will weigh whether the federal government improperly gave Rio Tinto Plc thousands of acres in Arizona for its Resolution Copper mining project in a case that pits religious rights against the green energy revolution.
The San Francisco-based court said it will decide the case en banc, meaning all of its 11 members will participate in the decision. Three members of the court had previously ruled for Rio and the land swap in June. No date has been set for the new hearing.
The dispute centers on the federally owned Oak Flat Campground, which some Apache consider home to deities and which sits atop a reserve of more than 40 billion pounds of copper, a crucial component of electric vehicles. If a mine is built, it would create a crater 2 miles (3 km) wide and 1,000 feet (304 m) deep that would destroy that worship site.
In 2014, Congress and then-President Barack Obama approved a complex deal to give Rio the land. A bill under consideration now would undo that deal, though it is expected to fail.
Rio said it respects the en banc decision. The project is a top priority for the company’s leadership.
“There is significant local support for the Resolution Copper project, and we will continue our efforts to understand, address and mitigate the concerns raised by others,” Rio spokesman Simon Letendre said.
BHP Group Plc, a minority partner in the project, deferred comment to Rio.
Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit group comprised of members of Arizona’s San Carlos Apache tribe and others, cheered the ruling.
“The government protects historical churches and other important religious landmarks, and our site deserves no less protection,” said Wendsler Nosie of the Apache Stronghold.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)