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In Democrats’ fight over the Trump administration’s environmental policies, McCollum will play a leading role

With Democrats in the majority in the House, McCollum will have a lot more power to impact environmental issues closely watched by many Minnesotans.

Rep. Betty McCollum
Rep. Betty McCollum speaking to attendees of the DFL Election Night gathering in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

A day before November elections, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum sent a pointed letter to the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture.

The St. Paul DFLer demanded more information on why the government had ended a study on the potential effect of copper-nickel mining in Superior National Forest and the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The research might have led to a 20-year moratorium on mining there, known as a mineral withdrawal.

“Your decision to abandon the environmental assessment is a rejection of the clear scientific record that prompted the application for withdrawal and the mounting evidence since then in support of withdrawal,” McCollum wrote along with Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva.

Such a letter from members of the minority party may have been more or less dismissed by a Republican administration in the past. But things are different now. Thanks to sweeping victories that gave Democrats a new House majority, McCollum will soon be the chairwoman of an influential Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. From that perch, she’ll have a lot more power to impact mining issues closely watched by many Minnesotans.

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But that will be just one of McCollum’s new responsibilities. In that job, McCollum will be in charge of allocating roughly $35 billion annually and overseeing the vast Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture. Those agencies control much of the country’s public lands, enforce anti-pollution laws and regulations, and have authority over mining projects on federal property in northern Minnesota. McCollum will also have new powers to investigate, making her a key figure in the Democratic push to question President Donald Trump’s pro-business environmental policies. (Grijalva, who is set to chair the Committee on Natural Resources, is another.)

“It will not be as smooth sailing for Trump administration officials,” said Alexandra Klass, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota’s Law School.

In an interview with MinnPost at her St. Paul office on Tuesday, McCollum, who was elected easily to a 10th term in November, said she’s worked hard to reach this spot — a position from which she’ll be able to promote and fund environmental programs she cares deeply about. McCollum said she intends to vigorously push back on the changes Trump and his appointees have made at EPA and Interior, which she sees as conflicting with the purpose of the agencies.

“We’re going to look at the budget carefully, look at oversight carefully and make sure that we fulfill our mission of protecting people’s health,” she said. “That’s the air that they breathe and the water they drink.”

Plotting a different course

So far, Trump’s environmental policy has produced an expansive legacy. Among other things, oil and gas drilling has boomed on public lands. The New York Times reported the federal government offered leases on triple the number acres of oil and gas parcels in fiscal 2018 than it did during the average year in Barack Obama’s second term.

In Minnesota, Trump’s administration has pushed hard to boost the prospects of copper-nickel mining. Besides ending the withdrawal study, the Interior Department reversed another Obama-era decision by reinstating the mineral leases of Twin Metals Minnesota, which hopes to build a mine on the edge of the BWCA near Ely. 

Trump’s agencies have also removed environmental regulations, many of them championed by Obama, to benefit businesses. Last week, the Department of the Interior touted a $400 million increase in economic output on federal lands during Trump’s first year in office, with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issuing a statement saying: “for many years, much of the land and water was locked up and not available for use. Not anymore under President Trump.”

McCollum has promised to plot a different course. At the top of her wish list is stronger anti-pollution regulations, policies to ease climate change and stopping proposed cuts to budgets for things like fighting wildfires, which Trump has threatened.

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That doesn’t mean she will be able to shepherd a parade of green legislation to Trump’s desk. Republicans still control the Senate. But McCollum said she can use her leverage over the committee’s budget to sway agencies to fill jobs (the administration has been accused of trying to weaken the EPA and Interior by leaving jobs open), spend money intended for enforcing pollution rules and bend their agendas toward her priorities. “The policy that gets implemented is influenced by the dollars that are appropriated to them,” McCollum said.

Putting the administration under the microscope

McCollum said she is also prepared to use her investigative powers to force change. Up until now, she said the administration has not given her timely or thoughtful responses to questions, and more scrutiny of the agencies could prod them to do so. “That’s why we’re going to have oversight hearings — to hold people accountable,” McCollum said. “Why didn’t you get back to us? Is it because we’ve appropriated money and the administration has not hired and filled vacancies so that people are able to do their jobs? Is that why? Or are you just ignoring us?”

McCollum said she also expects to use hearings to shed light on ethics scandals that have dogged the EPA and Interior and to obtain more information about how decisions over environmental regulations were made.

She acknowledged it’s unlikely that those decisions — such as the EPA’s rollback of Obama-era clean water protections under the Waters of the United States rule  — can be changed. But she said hearings and investigations could expose them as politically motivated rather than based on research. They could also help fuel voter support for her broader push to win Democratic control of Congress and the presidency in 2020, McCollum said.  The Department of Interior and the EPA did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Klass said McCollum and a Democratic House can also impede any new attempts to roll back or reverse regulations that Democrats favor. “There’s really been an effort to try and sort of erase the environmental protection gains during that happened during the eight years of the Obama administration,” Klass said of Trump’s government. “This may slow that down somewhat just because there’s a lot more questions being asked and they’ll have to justify their actions to Congress.”

Some of those questions from the House are bound to be about the administration’s decision to stop the copper-nickel mining study, McCollum said. “I think the public can expect transparency in how that decision was made,” she said. “And it wasn’t made in a way that looked at science.”

At the time, the Forest Service said its review process found no significant new information to justify a ban on mining in the 234,000-acre area of Superior National Forest in question. They have not publicly released what informed that finding, but in a September news release, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said: “We must put our national forests to work for the taxpayers to support local economies and create jobs.”

“We can do these two things at once: protect the integrity of the watershed and contribute to economic growth and stronger communities,” he added.

Mining could be central

In her interview with MinnPost, McCollum took pains to note that preventing copper-nickel mining within reach of the BWCA was just one priority among many given the nationwide scope of her responsibilities. But she has never been shy about her opposition to such mining, and her new job title means she’s likely to become an even louder voice in the debate.

Mining was a key issue in the 8th Congressional District election that sent Republican Pete Stauber to Congress. Tom Emmer, a Republican from the 6th District, has been vocal in supporting mining as well. But they’re both in the minority party now, giving them less political leverage.

McCollum’s actions have already drawn the ire of some who support potential mining projects in Superior National Forest. Gerald Tyler, chairman of Ely-based organization Up North Jobs, said he wrote a letter to McCollum outlining the economic positives mining will bring after reading her letter. He painted a picture of a region struggling to keep its schools and hospitals open and said the economic benefits of BWCA tourism isn’t enough to sustain his community.

Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Chilean mining company Antofagasta, predicts a mine near Ely would bring 650 direct jobs and another 1,300 “spinoff” jobs to the region. (Opponents of a potential mine often cite a Harvard study saying mining will eventually hurt the area’s economy by providing only short-term job gains while depressing eco-tourism in the long run.)

“Mining may not solve the problem that we have up here in a non-diversified economy but it certainly is going to help,” Tyler told MinnPost. 

For Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, McCollum provides a jolt of hope after years of defeats for groups trying to protect public lands from development at the hands of the president. “We have a system of checks and balances in America, that’s the way our government was intended to work,” Rom said. “And there really has been no check at all on the Trump administration for two years.” 

For her part, McCollum called the BWCA a “crown jewel” of the American parks system and said barring mining that could pollute its waters is part of a larger push to change the course of environmental policy under Trump. “It’s a priority,” she said of the BWCA. “But it’s a priority of how we’re seeing assaults on public lands and how they’re being managed by this entire Trump administration.”