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What Trump’s new executive order actually means for mining in Minnesota

In the short term, not much.

Twin Metals offices in Ely.
Twin Metals offices in Ely. The company hopes to build an underground mine primarily for copper and nickel, but also to collect cobalt, palladium and platinum.
Courtesy of Twin Metals Minnesota

When President Donald Trump visited Minnesota on Wednesday, he said he said he was there to talk about the Iron Range.

“A critical issue in this election is the future of the Minnesota Iron Range,” Trump said at a rally in Duluth. “You know what, that’s why I’m here.”

With a stated desire to win Minnesota in 2020, the Trump administration has made a concerted effort to help push along several contested copper-nickel mining projects in northern Minnesota. In 2019, Trump cancelled an Obama-era study on the potentially dire environmental impacts of copper-nickel mining projects in the Boundary Waters watershed that could have resulted in a 20 year moratorium on such projects. And at the rally on Wednesday, Trump announced a new executive order to expedite federal permitting of mining projects.

“I took another historic step for your state when I signed an executive order providing billions of dollars to jumpstart the production of critical and other minerals, which will create countless jobs and are so important for our country,” Trump said at the rally.

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The White House describes the intention of the executive order as to “cut down on unnecessary delays in permitting actions, providing Americans opportunities for jobs and improving economic and national security.” Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican who represents the Range as a part of Minnesota’s Eighth District, said the executive order was one he personally recommended.

But will it actually impact copper-nickel mining in Minnesota? And if not, what does it actually do?

What does the executive order actually do for the Iron Range?

In the short term, not much.

Bringing copper-nickel mining is highly contested, by groups like Save the Boundary Waters and elected officials like Rep. Betty McCollum, because it can be very environmentally risky for the region’s waterways, as well as plant and animal life.

The state’s own environmental review and permitting process, conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, is independent of federal authority, and is not impacted by the executive order.

President Donald Trump speaking during a campaign rally at Duluth International Airport on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Leah Millis
President Donald Trump speaking during a campaign rally at Duluth International Airport on Wednesday.
There are two major projects that will not be sped up by the order: Twin Metals, a mining project in Ely Minnesota owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta; and PolyMet, a billion dollar mining project near Hoyt Lakes.

Many of PolyMet’s permits, gathered over the course of 15 years, have been reversed or rescinded by courts, which the executive order does not deal with. Early last month, a judge found that the The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency broke no laws by asking federal regulators to not comment on a water permit for PolyMet, but the project is still subject to a number of other court challenges.

At the same time, a federal environmental review of the Twin Metals mine plan is still in progress and, as far as groups with copper-nickel mining concerns can tell, this executive order doesn’t change that process at all.

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“Federal environmental review of a Twin Metals mine plan commenced in mid-summer and, according to the federal agencies, will continue until September 2022,” said Becky Rom, National Chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “Only after the completion of environmental review can mine permitting be processed. Therefore, it does not appear that this executive order will have any short term impact on a proposed Twin Metals mine.”

So what does the executive order do? 

The executive order declares a national emergency for mining and aims to speed up federal permitting and provide federal money for mining projects, with an ultimate goal of reducing U.S. reliance on minerals from China.

The order directs the U.S. Department of the Interior to investigate and recommend additional executive actions to deal with the U.S’s reliance on foreign minerals. It also directs federal funding to be allotted to mining projects.

Stauber, in a statement, applauded the executive order as important for American jobs. He also said that the new order will help reduce reliance on child labor and environmentally destructive mining techniques practiced in other countries.

“Now more than ever, we need Minnesota’s miners as we work to eliminate dependence on unreliable nations that utilize forced child labor and environmentally destructive practices for goods that we, in the United States, use in our everyday life,” Stauber said in a press release. “I applaud this Administration for acting on my request and taking this monumental step towards empowering Minnesota’s miners to responsibly source the resources needed for our national security, infrastructure, and manufacturing needs.”

So then why announce the executive order in Minnesota?

Trump has made clear his desire to win Minnesota, come November, several times.

In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won Minnesota by only 1.5 percentage points. Trump is set on winning the state this time around, although polling shows that he is significantly behind 2020’s Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

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Trump has visited the state a number of times already. And at the Republic National Convention this year, former Democratic Eveleth Mayor Robert Vlaisavljevich endorsed President Trump (as did five other Iron Range mayors, prior to the convention).

“President Trump, he made good on his promises,” Vlaisavljevich said.

Rom, at Save the Boundary Waters, said the executive order does have some implications for Minnesota.

“The executive order does signal that this administration’s highest priority for America’s public lands is mining, even those public lands that form the headwaters of the Boundary Waters,” she said.

At his speech on Wednesday, President Trump made a commitment to the people of Minnesota.

“What we’ve done for Minnesota … I lose Minnesota, I’m never coming back,” Trump said. “I don’t care. I’m never coming back.”