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Federal decision to pull mining permits sets dangerous precedent for all Minnesota businesses

Should permitting (an ostensibly objective process) change based on the person currently occupying the Oval Office or Governor’s Residence?

President Joe Biden delivering remarks at Yellowjacket Union during his visit to the University of Wisconsin-Superior, in Superior, Wisconsin, on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
The Biden administration’s decision to upend the Twin Metals permitting process is anything but fair, unless you define “fair” as getting the outcome you prefer.
As presidents of our local Chambers of Commerce, our job is to help the businesses in our communities thrive and succeed. Sometimes that service means standing watch against actions that could do them harm. When we heard about the federal government unfairly canceling mining permits in Northeastern Minnesota, we recognized these actions as a dangerous precedent for business anywhere.

photo of christie ransom
Christie Ransom
Just over two years ago, Twin Metals Minnesota submitted a mine plan of operations to state and federal agencies, starting a multi-year scoping and environmental review process intended to evaluate their project and determine if it met local, state and federal regulatory and environmental requirements. It should be implied in “multi-year,” but this process is supposed to be rigorous, public and thorough.

Instead, the Biden administration in January, and the Walz administration just last month have decided to halt analysis of this company’s application by way of a blanket ban on new mining permits on 230,000 acres of Minnesota for up to 20 years, and by pulling two different leases that the company has held in good standing for more than 50 years and through 11 presidential administrations.

Let’s look at the bigger picture. If these actions can happen in this instance, what prevents them from happening in any other? Stated another way, should permitting (an ostensibly objective process) change based on the person currently occupying the Oval Office or Governor’s Residence?

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Permitting is a very important function. Permits can help certify the competency of a business, ensure the safety and effectiveness of products, promote responsible use of natural resources, and even advance broad social goals, such as environmental protections for land, water, and air. They are thorough processes, some of which (as here) can take years to complete, across multiple administrations.

Before an approval process begins, applicants must design its project, conduct any number of baseline studies, and only after having done its homework, submit a formal plan proposal for review and, ultimately, a decision.

It shouldn’t have to be stated so clearly, but an assumed principle by applicants is that the process must be predictable, impartial and fair.

photo of brad gruhot
Brad Gruhot
President Biden and Gov. Walz’s decision to sidestep predictability for political expediency is anything but fair, unless you define “fair” as getting the outcome you prefer. By the very definition of canceling the analysis, our state and federal administrations are specifically choosing not to evaluate the environmental and economic impacts of this project (and potentially any other) in the affected region. What does this say to every other business that might one day need a permit from a federal agency that might deem its application too politically problematic? How would it be any different if a different administration decided to ignore objective science to advance a favored applicant?

A fair process denied here diminishes a fair process everywhere, which is why we feel compelled to write. The next hospital, widget factory, retail expansion or bridge overpass must now contemplate the political favorability of its project in addition to its objective worthiness. These decisions will be appealed, as they should be, and we hope they are overturned, but not because we’re necessarily rooting for the specific project at issue. It’s because the most predictable consequence of these action is not a happy one – an even more partisan, hyper-political discussion on a subject that should be governed by science and process is now all but assured.

In light of the increased importance of these materials following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, perhaps it’s best for policymakers to re-evaluate this process so that if the application is denied, it’s because it was thoughtfully considered, and failed to meet Minnesota’s high standards. Likewise, if approved, Minnesotans can rest assured that the mine will be safe and productive for Minnesotans, and indeed the whole world.

Christie Ransom and Brad Gruhot serve as presidents of the Winona Area and Marshall Area Chambers of Commerce, respectively.