In 2016, the administration of Barack Obama halted a controversial mining project near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. President Trump revived it once he took office.
What will President-elect Joe Biden do? Since his campaign for president began, Biden hasn’t said anything about the Twin Metals Minnesota proposal, but two of Biden’s Cabinet picks may offer the best hint yet.
The president-elect chose Tom Vilsack, who was secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Obama, to return to the job. The USDA oversees the Forest Service, which manages the Superior National Forest, where Twin Metals wants to mine. Biden also tapped U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico to lead the Interior Department, which controls the mineral deposits in the forest.
The moves were celebrated by those who want to stop Twin Metals and taken as a bad sign by the project’s supporters. Haaland and Vilsack must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a St. Paul Democrat from Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies — which oversees both the Forest Service and the Department of Interior — said the choices “reconfirm” her belief that Biden “will do the right thing by the environment” and protect public lands by blocking the copper-nickel mine.
Up and down history for Twin Metals
Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, hopes to build a large copper-nickel mine near Ely on Birch Lake and the South Kawishiwi River. The company says it can use modern mining technology to meet environmental standards and predicts the project would create more than 750 jobs and another 1,500 spinoff jobs, not counting construction work to build the mine.
Still, opponents say the project is perilously close to the BWCA and risks creating toxins that will flow into the protected wilderness. In the final weeks of the Obama administration, the USDA and Interior Department rejected two mineral leases for Twin Metals and launched a study that could have led to a 20-year moratorium on mining in the Rainy River watershed, which drains into the BWCA. Such a ban is known as a mineral withdrawal.
Trump later reversed this decision, ended the study without releasing its results and championed the project. Twin Metals is still in the early stages of its environmental review and permitting process with the state and federal government.
State regulators at the Department of Natural Resources did say Twin Metals couldn’t yet prove its claim that rock in the area is low risk to create sulfuric acid that can leach heavy metals into water. That phenomenon, known as acid mine drainage or acid rock drainage, happens when rock bearing sulfides is exposed to air and water. The DNR is also reviewing its copper-nickel mining rules in the Rainy River watershed as part of an agreement with an environmental group that sued the state.
Biden picks have a history of opposing copper mining in Rainy River watershed
The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment and has not replied to questions about the project for months from MinnPost and other Minnesota media outlets.
But when Vilsack was in charge of the USDA, the U.S. Forest Service said acid mine drainage posed risk of irreparable harm to the BWCA.
In a 2018 op-ed for MinnPost, Vilsack called the Boundary Waters a “priceless wilderness” that can attract an economy based on outdoor tourism. “A project like the proposed Antofagasta Twin Metals mine, which threatens the fundamental character and integrity of the Boundary Waters, puts all that at risk,” Vilsack wrote.
While serving in Congress, Haaland cosponsored a bill with McCollum to permanently ban mining for copper, nickel and other similar metals on 234,328 acres of federal land in the Rainy River watershed, a step further than the USDA was considering under Vilsack.
Haaland criticized the Trump administration in 2019, saying: “In places like Minnesota, the Forest Service and [Bureau of Land Management] are jointly responsible for putting valuable freshwater resources at risk from mining pollution.”
McCollum said last week she is preparing information to share with Vilsack once Biden is sworn into office to get him up to speed on the issue. McCollum also said she talks to Haaland frequently, and said her colleague knows the topic well and voted for McCollum’s bill to ban sulfide mining in the Rainy River watershed in the House Natural Resources committee. “I think a Biden administration putting her in the position they have is to protect our public lands and sacred sites for Native American nations,” McCollum said.
McCollum said she hopes the Biden administration completes the mineral withdrawal study, which in her view was prematurely canceled. She also said Biden shouldn’t release the information until his administration has time “to see what needs to be added to that study to round it out.” McCollum also said she plans to suggest an executive order related to mining for the Biden administration, but declined to give details.
Could Biden be more open to mining projects to help green energy plans?
Reuters reported in October that Biden told U.S. mining companies he will support boosting production of metals like copper and nickel that are needed for clean energy technology such as electric cars and solar panels. McCollum said she viewed that as a broad statement that doesn’t apply to every mining project and doesn’t signal a change in course from the Obama administration on Twin Metals.
Despite Biden’s comments to mining companies, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican from Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, appeared to see Vilsack and Haaland as bad signs for the future of Twin Metals. Stauber, who serves with Haaland on the Natural Resources Committee, said Biden’s decision to nominate Cabinet members who have already opposed Twin Metals or copper mining in the watershed means the former Vice President has “politicized” environmental review.
Vilsack and the Obama administration “injected politics at the very last minute” of an outgoing administration, Stauber said, “and that is very concerning to me to put politics in play rather than following process and science.”
He said the project should be able to go through the larger permitting process without earlier intervention to study mineral withdrawal or cancel leases, saying if the project “can’t be done safely” in the end, then it shouldn’t move forward.
The project is in an area of Superior National Forest designated for mining development, and Stauber said Twin Metals could provide a needed boost of high-paying union jobs and produce metals that can power green technology.
The Trump administration and Biden say domestic mining can reduce reliance on foreign powers for these critical metals. Kathy Graul, a spokeswoman for Twin Metals, said in a prepared statement that the mine project “is aligned with many of the priorities of the incoming Biden Administration,” such as a shift to renewable energy technology.
Minnesota is home to a rare U.S. supply of copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals in a stretch of northeast Minnesota that’s known as the Duluth Complex. “The development of these resources – which are foundational to stronger domestic supply chains and a green economy transition – should get bipartisan support,” Graul said.
Still, environmental groups are happy with Biden’s choices. Jeremy Drucker, spokesman for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, a nonprofit opposed to Twin Metals led by former Minnesota DNR chief Tom Landwehr, said: “We think it’s a good Cabinet.”
“It’s a sea change in how this project is going to advance at the federal level,” Drucker said.