Monday, June 19, saw an unusual scene in Mountain Iron, Minnesota.
Three Republican members of the House of Representatives were gathered at the office of Twin Metals, a Minnesota mining company owned by a Chilean conglomerate, in support of action to protect that company’s ability to pursue mining projects in northern Minnesota — specifically, in a swath of land near the pristine, federally protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
These members, including 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer, belong to a group called the Congressional Western Caucus, which believes the federal government controls too much land, and supports opening up much of those lands, including protected parks and waters, to states, counties, or private companies — often for the purpose of enabling drilling, mining, and ranching.
They went to Twin Metals to voice their opposition to decisions made by Barack Obama’s administration, which denied the company a lease to mineral rights in the Boundary Waters watershed, and put into motion the withdrawal of a quarter-million acres of forest from any mining activity for up to 20 years. Emmer is supporting legislation that could reverse those decisions, and subject any future withdrawals to congressional approval.
That the Republicans were there decrying the overreach of the federal government was hardly novel. What made the scene notable was the Democrat who joined them: 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan, a one-time Bernie Sanders supporter who has made support of mining projects in his district a signature element of his political agenda.
The June 19 event was the latest example of Nolan locking arms with Republicans in order to advance pro-mining policies in Minnesota, but he’s partnered often with Emmer in particular. The two lawmakers are district neighbors, but the New Deal Democrat and the conservative former talk radio host have made for strange political bedfellows as they push for a rollback of the Obama-era policies — and for a more mining-friendly Minnesota.
A vast deposit in northern Minnesota
Northeastern Minnesota, of course, has a history of mining that stretches back many decades — they don’t call it the Iron Range for nothing.
But the 240,000 acres of Superior National Forest at the center of this debate offer much more than iron: Underneath the woods and lakes lies a trove of metals, particularly copper and nickel, that is worth an estimated $300 billion, making it one of the most valuable mineral deposits in the U.S.
For nearly half a century, the federal government has granted leases on these minerals without much fanfare. For much of that time, Twin Metals and its corporate predecessors held the mining rights, but the company has not proposed a specific project — it simply retained the ability to research the area and consider future mining projects, which would be subject to an environmental review process.
In December 2016, however, the U.S. Forest Service denied the renewal of those leases. According to the USFS, the inherent risks of the type of mining that would be put to use in this area, sulfide mining, pose too great a risk to the environment, potentially putting the entire Boundary Waters watershed at risk for pollution and environmental damage.
“The BWCAW is an exceptional resource, and the risks of affecting water quality by sulfide ore mining in the watershed outweigh the potential benefits of mining in this particular location,” the USFS wrote in explaining its decision. “The type of mining proposed here is untested in Minnesota and poses risk to the Boundary Waters’ unique natural resources.”
Beyond that, the USFS also began the process of blocking off areas near the Boundary Waters watershed from new mining projects for an extended period of time — up to 20 years. The Department of the Interior initiated a two-year “time out” to review that policy, during which no applications for mining exploration would be accepted.
Emmer was quick to pounce, framing it as a bad-faith move from an outgoing presidential administration. He countered that a Twin Metals project could bring a major economic boost to the Iron Range, and expressed his confidence that the administration of Donald Trump would reverse the decision.
Nolan soon joined him, calling the decision a “a real slap in the face and a punch in the gut from D.C. bureaucrats” for the Iron Range. He said protecting the environment is important, but added that it was embarrassing to block exploration of mining projects in the area.
“We should never be afraid of exploration and discovery, or using science and facts to dictate important decisions,” he said.
An unlikely partnership
In the months since that decision, Emmer and Nolan have joined together on several occasions to push the Trump administration for changes to the Obama-era policy, beyond the summit at Mountain Iron with the Republican lawmakers.
The pair has met with the two Cabinet secretaries with jurisdiction over the issue: Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, whose agency runs the Bureau of Land Management, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, whose agency is in charge of the U.S. Forest Service.
Emmer and Nolan discussed with both officials the possibility of reversing Twin Metals’ lease denials. After the meeting with Perdue and Nolan on July 18, Emmer said the USDA secretary “expressed his willingness to partner with us on this important issue, to get government out of the way, and to allow our economy to flourish in Northern Minnesota and across the country.”
In interviews with MinnPost, the lawmakers expressed optimism that the Trump administration is sympathetic to their arguments.
“We haven’t gotten any pushback from the administration. Everyone’s looking at what was done,” Emmer said last week, referring to the Obama decisions. He said a reversal was “in play.”
Emmer and Nolan both said that having a member of the other side as a partner in that effort is helping to accomplish their mutual goal.
“The fact that you have a Trump administration and a Republican Senate and a Republican House, I think that’s what led to Rick and I working together,” Emmer said, adding that having a Republican partner to move the issue forward and secure meetings with the likes of Zinke and Perdue is a boon for Nolan’s work in his district. Emmer said that for optics and the overall process, for him, it’s nice to have a Democratic partner.
Nolan concurred. “The Republicans are in charge of everything out here now,” he said. “If you don’t have good relations with some of the Republicans, you’re just rendered to speechifying as opposed to getting anything done.”
If pushing the administration toward a rule change fails, however, Emmer has thought of a work-around. He is advancing legislation that would reverse the Obama administration’s decisions to deny the Twin Metals leases and halt the process of imposing a moratorium on mining in the lands near BWCA. It would also require congressional approval for withdrawal of lands for mineral use — making the Interior Department’s action under Obama much more difficult, if not impossible, while Republicans control Congress.
That bill is currently in the form of a “discussion draft,” so it is not technically a piece of legislation yet. Emmer’s office said that whether the draft proceeds as legislation depends on what, if any, action the administration might take to reverse the Obama decisions.
The discussion draft did receive a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee last Thursday. Before hearing testimony from Emmer, the committee was shown a video made by the pro-mining group Jobs for Minnesotans that featured Iron Rangers in support of the project, and claiming that the Obama decisions would “seal off the region’s hopes and dreams for a prosperous future.” Nolan has not yet taken a position on the proposed legislation.
Pushback from McCollum
Emmer, Nolan, and their allies frame their stance carefully: They say they are not advocating for mining to occur in this area right now, and emphasize that no project is currently planned for the area near BWCA. Instead, they argue that the ability to mine there one day should be preserved, because it could be an enormous boost to the region’s economy.
People like 4th District Rep. Betty McCollum disagree. McCollum is a vocal opponent of mining plans near BWCA, and has been publicly critical of Emmer and Nolan’s efforts in recent months.
Environmental advocates argue that sulfide mining of copper and nickel in this area will never have a neutral impact on the Boundary Waters, even if it does not actually occur in the protected area. On the contrary, they believe sulfide mining would seriously — perhaps permanently — damage the pristine wilderness, and it’s for that reason they support the withdrawal of the mineral leases and the lengthy moratorium on mining.
Facing Republican control of Congress and now the White House — a regime much more likely to deregulate land use in general — opponents of mining near the BWCA are vocally pushing back against Nolan and Emmer’s efforts.
Last week, McCollum went after Emmer’s legislation in an op-ed in the Hill newspaper, arguing it will primarily benefit Antofagasta, the Chilean mining company that owns Twin Metals. “There is simply no justification for Congress to rewrite the rules to make it easier for Antofagasta to mine on protected federal land,” she wrote. “This proposal is a giveaway of public lands to private interests — with one of our nation’s last wild places as the collateral damage.”
The St. Paul Democrat has not been shy in attacking Nolan, a fellow DFLer, on his stance on mining. In March, she sent out a press release after Nolan wrote a letter to Trump asking him to overturn the Obama administration policies affecting mining near BWCA.
“Representative Nolan’s assault on this natural treasure is misguided,” she said. “Minnesotans can count on me to stay the course and keep fighting everyday to protect our Boundary Waters from polluters, the Trump administration, and politicians who stand with it.”
McCollum does not see Emmer and Nolan getting traction in their mission, however. Instead, in the administration’s actions, the congresswoman is seeing some positive signs.
Perdue, the USDA chief, appeared before a House Appropriations subpanel in June and told McCollum that he would allow the two-year process of reviewing the moratorium on mining to move forward. McCollum told MinnPost that she believes both Zinke and Perdue are committed to a diligent process on the Twin Metals issue, touting that as a sign the Trump administration is not willing to move so quickly to enable mining near BWCA.
A political minefield
The future of mining near the Boundary Waters is not clear, and it could be a long time before important decisions are made by the federal government, or by Congress. But Nolan and Emmer’s advocacy could give rise to shorter-term political consequences.
For Emmer, mining is a straightforward issue. Of the delegation’s three Republicans, he has been the most vocal on the topic, and it’s a good fit for him: beyond railing against federal overreach, taking a strong position on the side of mining allows Emmer to be a visible champion for rural Minnesota’s economy — an issue Republicans are increasingly using as a bludgeon against the DFL.
Indeed, the Twin Metals issue has been a thorny one for some statewide Democrats. Through a spokesperson, Sen. Amy Klobuchar declined to comment on Emmer’s discussion draft bill, while a spokesperson for Sen. Al Franken said the proposal would sidestep an important review process.
Emmer told MinnPost that his travels in the region during his 2010 gubernatorial run underscored the need to support mining. “Someone, somewhere, someday will figure out how to access these resources in an environmentally safe and responsible way,” he said.
Nolan is hardly the only pro-mining Democrat in northeastern Minnesota, and his advocacy on the Twin Metals issue helps to protect his standing among the pro-mining constituents that have historically been a pillar of DFL support in the 8th District.
But many of those people supported Trump in 2016, and the area has grown redder and redder in recent years — and on the congressional level, too. On the other side of Nolan’s political high wire are environmentally minded liberals in Duluth and other CD8 towns who oppose mining near BWCA, and have grown alienated by his stance.
Nolan told MinnPost he has felt some blowback from Democrats for his policies. “I’m a little surprised that there were some people up in the 8th District that were upset that I’d collaborate with Republicans,” he said. “But I don’t apologize for it. That’s how you get things done, especially when you’re in the minority.”
According to Steven Schier, a professor of politics at Carleton College, Nolan approaches the issue in terms of jobs and the traditional economic base of his district.
“I think he has to worry about a Green Party candidate taking votes from him, mainly in Duluth and Grand Marais,” Schier added. “That depends on him having a really quality opponent who can produce a really close result.” In 2014, a Green Party candidate, Ray “Skip” Sandman, polled 4.3 percent of the vote in the CD8 race, in which Nolan ultimately defeated Republican challenger Stewart Mills by under 4,000 votes. Sandman has already announced his candidacy for the 2018 race.
While some DFLers are concerned that Nolan is making himself vulnerable to a third-party competitor, others think his position on mining takes the wind from the sails of whichever Republican he faces.
“When you think about it, this is Nolan veering in a Trump direction,” Schier said. “This is exactly the sort of initiative that Trump would approve of.”
According to Becky Rom, chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, Minnesotans will not reward Nolan and Emmer for their positions on mining.
Seventy percent of Nolan’s constituents, Rom said, want the feds’ two-year study to go forward. “You have to ask why he’s supporting Antofagasta over the interests of his own constituents. I can’t answer it. He’s out of step with his constituents.”
Save the Boundary Waters’ polling on the issue indicates that 60 percent of Minnesotans oppose sulfide mining near the BWCA; according to Rom, that indicates even Emmer is not safe from political consequences, either.
The issue that these Minnesotan lawmakers are on the front lines of is a fraught one, Carleton’s Schier says. “F-R-A-U-G-H-T,” he spelled it out. “What you have in this situation is two differing incentives for [Nolan and Emmer] pointing in the same direction.”
“Nolan’s clearly decided that what St. Paul thinks is not going to motivate him here,” he explained. “This is a pitched battle on a well-established front. In other words, the trenches are dug.”