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Cravaack, Nolan battle over natural resources

WASHINGTON — In an election driven by creating jobs, northern Minnesota’s natural resources take center stage.

Hull Rust Mahoning Mine is the biggest operating open pit iron ore mine in the world, more than three miles long, two miles wide and 535 feet deep.
Creative Commons/Pete Markham
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Nolan: Invest in new research

Nolan, meanwhile, has based his approach around increased federal investment in the mining industry, by way of a $250 million-a-year research center that would look at newer, cheaper and more environmentally friendly ways of extracting resources from the region.

He said the permitting and environmental review process need to be sped up, but that in many cases, companies are more handcuffed by their inability to actually do the mining rather than the regulations to which it would be subjected. He gave an example: a would-be mine that hasn’t had a problem navigating the permitting process, but can’t get to its desired manganese because the bedrock is too hard.

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Nolan supports bits and pieces of what Cravaack has proposed in the House this term. He came out in favor of parts of the permitting streamlining bill, for example, but opposed the bill as a whole. He said he backed BWCA land swap (a version of which was passed by the state Legislature and signed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton), but not certain ancillary provisions in Cravaack’s version of the bill.

Effectiveness is the key fight

Since you wouldn’t run for office in the 8th without supporting natural resources jobs, Cravaack and Nolan have focused on trying to position themselves as the more effective candidate for the industry.

That’s the crux of Nolan’s argument — he grew up on the Cuyuna Range and has managed rural Minnesota businesses throughout his life. “Cravaack is all show and no go, all hat and no horse,” he said. “There are some of us, historically, who roll up our sleeves and gets things done.”

Cravaack, meanwhile, said Nolan’s research center plan does nothing more than contribute to the slow growth of the federal budget. He blamed Democrats for blocking his permitting and land swap bills, and said if they were to pass, like his steel amendment did, they would inevitably create jobs.

Meanwhile, he accused Nolan of not giving a full-throated endorsement of the mining industry.

“It’s like a ham and egg breakfast. The chicken made a contribution but the ham has definitely given his dedication to cause. I have been 100 percent focused on mining,” he said. “Rick Nolan says he supports mining, but it’s a wink and a nod to the environmentalists. He is an environmentalist, he’s a radical environmentalist.”

Balancing the environment and economy

That, in fact, is the dichotomy of representing a district like the 8th, where the natural resources are both an economic engine and highly valued ecologically.

Cravaack’s focus has been on rolling back federal regulations and giving deference to those written by the state, which he said are generally stronger and better informed than those forged in Washington.

“A Minorca miner told me this great saying: ‘Pay attention to your own bobber,’” he said. “We can do it better, we’re more attuned to what’s going on in the 8th District than the federal government ever will be.”

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Nolan said technological improvements have made it such that it’s easier than ever to balance both the economic and environmental interests in the region.

“That was the question in the past, but we have the knowledge, the wherewithal and the technology today that we can do both,” he said.

Jim Skurla, the director of the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said companies are generally cognizant of the balancing act, as well.

“They treat it very seriously,” he said. “They live here too. They don’t want live on a desolate mine dump.”

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who represented the district for 36 years before losing to Cravaack in 2010, said regulations written in Washington and the permitting process serve an important purpose, though he said the process could be sped up for the sake of would-be employers in the region.

“It’s not the regulations that are not the problem. Regulations are there for a cause, to protect the public interest and the regulatory process has to be carried through, issues raised have to be resolved, and it’s just a matter of compressing the time frame in which those has to be done,” he said. “The frustrating part is the time it takes to go through those hoops, but you don’t serve the public interest if you don’t hear those voices.”

Oberstar was a supporter of new mining, like Cravaack and Nolan, including the delayed PolyMet project, a position that puts all three of them at odd with environmental groups. Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness Executive Director Brad Sagan, for example, said the government simply should not move forward with projects like PolyMet.

Environment Minnesota preservation advocate Samantha Chadwick warned against politicians taking the “we can do both” approach Nolan has advocated.

“Both [Cravaack and Nolan] are given the opportunity to speak to the public about mining,” she said. “I think more politicians need to be able to say, ‘We can’t do this, we won’t do sulfide mining unless we know we’ll protect [the environment].’ We need politicians who are bold enough to say that.”

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