Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


GOP takeover of U.S. House roils efforts to stop Twin Metals mine

Permanent federal protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is likely now out of reach and the new GOP House of Representatives will try to ease federal rules for the mine permitting process.

An image of the Rainy River in Superior National Forest, near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
An image of the Rainy River in Superior National Forest, near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

WASHINGTON — The GOP takeover of the House has upended the political playing field for Twin Metals and environmentalists who are locked in battle over a proposed cobalt, copper and nickel mine in the Superior National Forest.

Permanent federal protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is likely now out of reach and the new GOP Congress will try to ease federal rules for the mine permitting process. With efforts to permanently derail a proposed Twin Metals mine stalled in Washington, D.C., legislation that would block Twin Metals’ plans has been revived in the state Legislature.

But that could fail, too. So the saga over Twin Metals and Chilean parent company Antofagasta’s effort to increase and diversify its mining operations may continue for years.

Taconite is mined in the Superior National Forest, which is part of the national forest system. But environmentalists say mining for minerals like copper, cobalt and nickel in the forest – which require deep extraction in an underground mine – would produce tailings that can be dangerous sources of toxic chemicals that would pollute the Rainy River Watershed – and the Boundary Waters.

Article continues after advertisement

Twin Metals vows its plans for a new mine are safe and says the new metals that would be extracted are needed to boost clean technologies aimed at fighting climate change.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration has canceled two federal mining leases owned by Twin Metals – prompting the mining company to sue – and the Interior Department is soon to issue a decision about banning mining in all or part of the forest for 20 years.

A mining moratorium would further block Twin Metals’ plans to try to develop what is considered one of the largest undeveloped copper-nickel resources in the world and make the area off limits to other mines. But that moratorium could be scrapped by a subsequent administration.

And efforts to permanently prohibit Twin Metals from mining copper and nickel in the Superior National Forest in the form of a bill sponsored by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th District, died in the prior Congress. McCollum plans to reintroduce her bill in this Congress, but that legislation is unlikely to gain traction.

With the Republican win of the House of Representatives, the most ardent opponent of McCollum’s legislation, Rep. Pete Stauber, R-8th District, who represents the Iron Range in Congress, is expected this week to be handed the gavel of a congressional panel with jurisdiction over mining – and bills like McCollum’s.

As chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Stauber plans to hold a hearing on why the Biden administration cancelled Twin Metals’ leases, asking Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to testify, if necessary.

“We’re going to hold the administration accountable for their actions,” Stauber said. “I am going to ask, ‘Why did you stop this project?’”

Stauber has also introduced a bill, the Permitting for Mining Needs Act, or the PERMIT-MN Act, that would streamline the permitting process, prohibit lawsuits against permitting decisions more than 120 days after such a decision has been made and set 18- and 24-month deadlines for environmental assessments and environmental impact statements on proposed mining projects.

The congressman’s bill would also allow mining companies to begin operations “with or without the discovery of a valuable mineral deposit,” something critics say would open large areas of the nation to indiscriminate mining.

Article continues after advertisement

Stauber says the PERMIT-MN Act would increase domestic production of critical minerals necessary for meeting defense, technology and clean energy needs in the United States.

To Stauber, mining in Minnesota’s ore-rich areas are needed not only to boost the state’s economy, but to keep the United States from relying on the minerals and metals it needs from other nations and to stop the exploitation of children in those countries.

“Seventy-five percent of the world’s cobalt comes from child labor in the Congo,” Stauber said.

Meanwhile Becky Rom, the national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, a coalition of environmental and conservation groups trying to block the Twin Metals mine, said, “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Stauber and I’ve just given up.”

“He has been anointed by the House GOP to be ‘Mr. Mining,’” Rom said.

Stauber’s bill will have GOP support and may pass the House. But it stands little chance of consideration in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Still, in a GOP-controlled House, environmentalists and their Democratic allies no longer will have the platforms afforded to Stauber.

Despite the political setback posed by the GOP’s new control of the U.S. House, Rom of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is optimistic.

“Our goal is permanent protection of the headwaters,” she said.

Rom said there was an effort to put McCollum’s permanent ban on deep extraction mining as part of a public land component in the massive omnibus spending bill Congress approved at the end of the last session.

Article continues after advertisement

“But we failed,” she said. “Now I’m very pessimistic that anything will happen in the next two years.”

Still, she said he coalition is setting the stage for a future Congress that might be more sympathetic to her cause. In the meantime, action to stop Twin Metals’ proposed mine has shifted to the state Legislature.

Last week, state Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, and state Sen. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, introduced “The Boundary Waters Permanent Protection Bill,” which would expand the existing state ban on mining within the Boundary Waters to include the entire Rainy River headwaters.

Twin Metals said the latest effort to block its proposed new mine in the Superior National Forest is misguided and counterproductive because the minerals the mine  would produce are needed in clean technologies aimed at combatting climate change.

“We cannot meet Gov. Walz’s goals to boost clean energy and clean transportation in Minnesota without mining,” said Twin Metals spokeswoman Kathy Graul. “The greatest risk to the Boundary Waters and the broader environment is climate change. Fighting this climate crisis with clean technologies requires the minerals that are abundant in the ground in northeast Minnesota.”