For those who don’t want mining — or even the whiff of mining — to come anywhere near northern Minnesota’s protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the last weeks of the Barack Obama administration were good ones.
Just as Donald Trump was preparing to take office, the Obama administration declined to renew mineral leases held by the company Twin Metals, and began the process of blocking off nearly a quarter-million acres of Superior National Forest from mining projects for up to 20 years.
Fourth District DFL Rep. Betty McCollum, one of Congress’ staunchest opponents of mining near the Boundary Waters, said back then that Minnesotans should celebrate the victories, but cautioned that “we have more work to do.”
She was right. Shortly after Trump took office, proponents of allowing a path for mining to move forward in northeastern Minnesota have taken aim at the Obama decisions from every vantage point available.
A bipartisan duo of Minnesotans, 8th District DFL Rep. Rick Nolan and 6th District GOP Rep. Tom Emmer, have led the charge, introducing legislation to reverse the Obama decisions, filing amendments to undermine them, directly appealing the Trump administration to reconsider and working members of Congress to get them on board.
As Washington heads into a busy end of the year, there are several ways Congress, or the administration, could reverse the Obama decisions and clear obstacles for mining projects near the Boundary Waters. Two energized coalitions on both sides are advocating loudly and working hard, recognizing this as a critical moment for the future of northern Minnesota’s people, places, and economy.
Obama sparks controversy in last weeks of administration
At the center of this year’s flurry of D.C. activity about mining in Minnesota are two separate decisions made by officials in the outgoing Obama administration.
In December, the federal Bureau of Land Management, in consultation with the U.S. Forest Service, announced it was denying an application by Twin Metals, a mining company with offices in St. Paul and Ely, for renewal of its mineral leases on land in the Superior National Forest, a few miles from the buffer zone of the Boundary Waters wilderness. (Twin Metals is owned by Antofagasta, a large mining conglomerate based in Chile.)
Twin Metals and its corporate predecessors had held rights to the metals under this land for decades. The mineral deposit, chiefly copper and nickel, is estimated to be worth anywhere from $300 to $500 billion, and could be one of the most valuable mines in the U.S. if developed.
Twin Metals had never actually proposed a specific project. It simply retained the ability to research the area and consider future mining projects, which would be subject to a lengthy environmental review process if proposed.
The USFS, in denying the renewal of those leases, cited the inherent risks of sulfide mining — the mining technique that is put to use in extracting copper and nickel — saying it could put the entire Boundary Waters area at risk for pollution and environmental degradation.
“The type of mining proposed here is untested in Minnesota and poses risk to the Boundary Water’s unique natural resources,” the USFS said in a statement explaining its decision. “Acid mine drainage is a significant environmental risk at sulfide ore mine sites and as the Boundary Waters is a water-based ecosystem, contaminated water could have dramatic impacts to aquatic life, sport fisheries, and recreation-based communities.”
Some conservationists maintain sulfide mining is impossible to do safely, and that it would almost certainly release toxic levels of chemicals into the water. Even though any mining would not take place inside the Boundary Waters wilderness, they say that the geological qualities of the area would make it vulnerable to sulfide mining, even if the actual mines were miles away.
To that end, in January — a few days before Trump took office — the USFS announced it was beginning the process of placing a potential 20-year moratorium on any mining exploration or activity in a total of 234,328 acres of Superior National Forest. (Emmer and other opponents of the decision say the withdrawal would affect roughly 425,000 acres.)
That review, which includes a months-long public commenting period, is expected to take two years. While the study is happening, USFS mandates a moratorium on mining activity, effectively making it a two-year ban.
As McCollum hailed these decisions, Nolan and Emmer were outraged; Nolan called them a “real slap in the face and a punch in the gut” to the Iron Range.
As soon as the new administration took shape, the duo began taking several actions to try to undermine or entirely reverse the 11th-hour moves.
They have directly appealed high-level officials in the administration with jurisdiction over these decisions, meeting with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the USFS, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees the Bureau of Land Management.
Emmer said that Perdue “expressed his willingness to partner with us on this important issue” and “get government out of the way.” Their goal is to pressure these administration officials to simply reverse the denial of Twin Metals’ leases and stop the process of withdrawing the Superior National Forest land from mining.
Nolan and Emmer remain optimistic that the administration will take the action they want to see. McCollum, on the other hand, touts assurances from Perdue, made in a May hearing before the Interior and Environment subpanel of the House Appropriations Committee, that he would allow the environmental review of the mineral withdrawal to go forward.
Attacking the issue from Congress
Nolan and Emmer have covered their bases in Congress, however, in the event that there is no administrative action from Washington to undo the Obama decisions.
In July, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on a preliminary piece of legislation, called a “discussion draft,” that Emmer introduced. The bill would reverse the denial of Twin Metals’ leases, and stop the 20-year withdrawal of mining near BWCA.
The draft goes far beyond those goals, however, by requiring Congress to approve any future withdrawal of lands for mineral use in the Superior National Forest — making any action like the one the Obama administration took much more difficult. Beyond that, the discussion draft would exempt Minnesota from the Antiquities Act, which gives the president broad authority to establish protected public lands, or “national monuments.” (The only state currently exempted from Antiquities Act authority is Alaska.)
The discussion draft has not yet been formally introduced as legislation but Emmer may do so if the administration does not take action.
More immediately, in the last week, Emmer and Nolan have introduced a new legislative vehicle that, while narrower than the discussion draft, would meaningfully undermine the Obama decisions.
The two lawmakers filed an amendment to the House of Representatives’ so-called omnibus, the package of bills outlining federal government appropriations for the coming year. The amendment would prohibit federal funding from going to any study of the 20-year withdrawal of lands in Superior National Forest, or to any enforcement of the Obama-era rules.
It doesn’t give Twin Metals its leases back, but it would basically render the prior rules toothless. The amendment was included on the Interior and Environment appropriations bill that passed the House on Thursday.
Emmer touted that the amendment received “unanimous support” when it was attached to the bill on the House floor last week. It received a voice vote, not a roll call vote in which individual members’ yeses and nos are recorded. It was also included as part of a larger package of amendments, which are grouped together as so-called “en bloc” amendments.
McCollum, the top Democrat on the Interior and Environment Appropriations subcommittee, emphasized that there is plenty of opposition to Emmer and Nolan’s amendment, even though it made it through the House.
“It’s a rider on the bill,” she told MinnPost. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the actual appropriations to keep the agencies up and running.”
The nighttime debate last week on the House floor over Emmer and Nolan’s amendment crystallizes the congressional dynamic on the mining issue right now.
Introducing his amendment, Emmer emphasized that it is not about immediately greenlighting mining near the Boundary Waters, but ensuring that it could happen down the road. “Somewhere, someone will find a way to mine the precious metals in this area in a safe and environmentally responsible way,” he said. “When that happens, Minnesota deserves to have that opportunity and the jobs and economic prosperity that will ensue.”
McCollum countered that the Obama administration’s actions were necessary “to assess what type of mining, if any, is appropriate on Federal lands and this watershed for the next 20 years.”
“The Emmer amendment upends this careful process,” she argued. “It pushes aside the Forest Service’s ongoing study. It mandates that dangerous copper and sulfide mining will be allowed in the watershed, regardless of the conclusions of this environmental study, and it intentionally ignores a public process that hundreds of thousands of Americans weighed in on with comments on both sides of the issue.”
“In my opinion, this amendment sets a horrible precedent, wastes taxpayer dollars already invested in this study, and threatens a national treasure, and it should never become law.”
This amendment marked the first time Third District Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican, waded into the issue in D.C. He did not have time to speak on the House floor, but he entered his comments into the congressional record — and they were in opposition to his Republican colleague’s amendment.
“I oppose this amendment’s effort to defund an ongoing environmental review to protect one of Minnesota’s natural treasures,” Paulsen said.
“The public process that is underway after hundreds of thousands of people weighed in with their comments, should not be ignored and tossed aside. And, a science-based assessment of the best management practices of this sensitive ecosystem should be adhered to.”
The entrance of Paulsen into the debate further scrambled an issue that defies easy partisan categorization. Though Republicans broadly favor loosening government regulations and restrictions on public lands, and Democrats broadly favor strong environmental protections, within the Minnesota congressional delegation, the issue has fallen more along urban-rural lines than red-blue ones. The main players in the House have been two Twin Cities lawmakers, who are clashing with two from greater Minnesota.
The issue is a more complicated one for statewide Democrats, or those with statewide aspirations. First District DFL Rep. Tim Walz, who is running for governor, told MinnPost that he does not want to see the Emmer-Nolan amendment go forward, and wants the environmental impact study to be finished so officials and the public can review its findings.
Sen. Al Franken agrees. “It’s crazy to risk the watershed there without doing the proper science and having some patience,” he told the Duluth News Tribune editorial board earlier this month. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, meanwhile, has not been vocal on this issue, and advocates on both sides expressed optimism that she would ultimately side with them.
Passion back home in Minnesota
In northeastern Minnesota, where interest in the Obama decisions has been intense, people on both sides are paying close attention to what Washington is doing right now. Earlier in the year, there were three listening sessions, in Ely, St. Paul, and Duluth, where officials sought public input about the withdrawal of public lands. Over 3,000 people attended.
Becky Rom, the chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, described Emmer and Nolan’s multi-pronged approach to reversing the Obama decisions as “death by a thousand cuts.”
She said she believes the two lawmakers are trying hardest to get the Trump administration to change course, but she also said she was concerned by their amendment that passed the House.
“It eliminates the public from the most important decision about the Boundary Waters, probably in our lifetime, in the face of strong public interest,” Rom said.
Gerald Tyler is the chair of Up North Jobs, a group that advocates for mining projects in Minnesota. “If there can be a political solution,” he says, “legislation that would resolve this with an amendment they’re going to attach to the spending bill, that’s a far better way of resolving all this.”
“If the agencies, Interior and Agriculture, don’t respond by December, I think that amendment will be tacked on, then it has to be passed by the Senate. That, who can predict, who knows,” he said. “Maybe we can apply some pressure.”
McCollum has vowed to get rid of the Emmer-Nolan amendment, and it’s possible the language could not make it through the appropriations process. The Senate may not include it in its own spending package, and if the Senate does not include it, it is unlikely to survive. (Emmer and Nolan plan on lobbying the relevant senators to ensure it is included.)
Emmer described to MinnPost a “two-track” process for pushing to reverse the Obama moves, one administrative, and one legislative. He expressed optimism about both.
“I think we’re doing what we need to do,” he said. “We have to see what happens… it depends on what the administration wants. They might want us to do a freestanding, separate bill. Nothing’s done until it’s done.”
Lawmakers on both sides acknowledged the intensity of the debate this year in Congress, and called out the other side for extreme moves and misleading rhetoric.
“I’m not surprised by it,” McCollum said of her opponents. “I think the people who are pro-mining in the Boundary Waters made it very clear that’s a priority for them, to try any way they can to make sure that mining can continue.”
Nolan and Emmer take pains to emphasize they are not advocating for a mining project in the Superior National Forest right now — they just want exploration to remain an option.
“The majority of the emails and correspondences coming into my office want to know why I’m supporting mining in the Boundary Waters,” Nolan told MinnPost. “I don’t. I never have.”
“If you’re from Minnesota, the Boundary Waters has a special meaning to all of us,” Emmer said. “If you’re from outside Minnesota, you know this is a really special place.”
“What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is those that have these fears that there’s somehow going to be a mine to do damage to the Boundary Waters… they’ve decided to take a new track. Some smart person figured out if they could convince the Department of the Interior and/or the US Forest Service not to renew these leases, there would never be a discussion about this again,” he said.
“It’s an all-or-nothing approach.”
This article has been updated to clarify the number of acres affected by the USFS decision.