Four years ago, those in the nonferrous mining industry were breathing a sigh of relief. They were confident the new Republican administration would lift a ban on mineral lease renewals that had put exploration by Twin Metals Minnesota on hold. The ban had been instituted earlier by Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during the final days of the Obama administration. With Americans electing Donald Trump, there was optimism the action would be reversed. About one year ago, the federal district court in Washington, D.C., upheld the validity of Twin Metals’ federal mineral leases, the company said.
With the election of Joe Biden last November, the political mood and power has again switched. As stated in 1832 by Sen. William Learned Marcy, “To the victor go the spoils.” Biden has appointed his own department heads, and they are less in support of heavy industry than Trump’s officials. Of particular interest regionally, Vilsack returned to the position of agriculture secretary. It quickly raised concern that Biden’s administration might reverse the progress obtained by promoters of copper-nickel-precious metals mining.
Key to that question is another unknown. How much influence will Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both DFLers, have with Biden? In the past, both have supported nonferrous mining if it can receive regulatory approval and be done responsibly. That’s a difficult position because many of their DFL colleagues, particularly from Duluth and southward, don’t believe nonferrous minerals can be mined safety. In particular, State Sen. Jennifer McEwen (DFL-Duluth) introduced a bill in the Minnesota Legislature that would forbid nonferrous mining until it is first proved that a nonferrous mine has operated safely elsewhere in the United States for 10 years, and not polluted nearby local watersheds for 10 years after mining operations ceased.
Without doubt, on the mining of precious metals, often called “hard rock mining,” Klobuchar and Smith are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Frank Ongaro, executive director of the trade association Mining Minnesota, takes a pragmatic approach.
“You deal with the cards you’re dealt – and right now Joe Biden is the president and Tom Vilsack is the ag secretary. There’s a ying and yang that goes with everything,” he said.
But Ongaro and other advocates aren’t entering the fray without having a strategy for advancing nonferrous mining.
“The Biden administration leans left and is against some industrial development – but they also support Buy America and want to go 100 percent electric vehicles. So we’re trying to point out they can’t achieve that goal without Minnesota. We have two of the top 10 nickel deposits on the planet. So if you want electric vehicles, the Duluth Complex could produce 300 million electric vehicles based on the amount of copper available and 200 million based on the amount of nickel available,” Ongaro said. “We’ve got a regulatory process – let it work.”
Jobs for Minnesotans Board Chair Nancy Norr supports that game plan.
“We completely support the tie these minerals make to the administration’s other goals for global warming and a clean economy. We’ll work hard to educate the Biden administration,” she said.
Twin Metals also is on board. The corporation released its position in a prepared statement provided to BusinessNorth on March 24:
“The Twin Metals Minnesota project is consistent with many of the top priorities of the Biden administration, including its focus on the green energy transition. The administration has also highlighted in its Executive Order on America’s Supply Chains that domestic mining projects like the one proposed by Twin Metals are critical to our nation’s ability to secure much-needed, responsibly sourced minerals. We fully anticipate working with members of Biden’s cabinet to help address these important priorities for our nation.”
The optimism isn’t universal. Some residents believe Northeastern Minnesota is at a key juncture, and they doubt the Democrats in power will put economic gain ahead of their fear that runoff might pollute the watershed.
“The town of Ely is in serious shape. Our median household income is $40,591 according to a 2018 Census study. In Duluth, it was $47,227 and in Eveleth, $51,000. But statewide, it exceeds $70,000,” said Gerald Tyler of Up North Jobs, which strongly supports mining. “The administration doesn’t want to understand why we’re struggling up here. Ely’s population hasn’t climbed since 1930.”
Although Gov. Tim Walz hasn’t opposed the project, “he hasn’t been supportive either,” Tyler said, adding that nonferrous mining is supported by mayors across the Iron Range and the majority of St. Louis County Board members.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Hermantown) is even more skeptical.
“Since taking office, President Biden has cancelled the Keystone Pipeline, banned oil and gas leasing on federal lands, and now, his EPA is targeting a mining project in Minnesota’s Eighth District,” Stauber Communications Director Kelsey Mix wrote in an email. “The President’s actions have made it abundantly clear that he would rather rely on hostile foreign nations and child slave labor for the resources that power our modern way of life, rather than empowering our skilled workforce to responsibly develop our resources here at home.”
In addition to the selection of Vilsack, “The Congressman is also concerned about Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the very radical positions that she holds on natural resources issues,” Mix added. “Having served with Deb Haaland on the House Natural Resources Committee, Congressman Stauber will never forget that she supported anti-mining legislation that specifically targets his district. As the top Republican on the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Congressman Stauber stands ready to fight for our way of life in Northern Minnesota and defend against the constant attacks on high-wage American mining and energy jobs.”
For now, all sides will have a three-month opportunity to catch their breath. The U.S. Department of Justice has put a stay on legal action related to nonferrous mining. It’s not a controversial action – but rather is a routine break granted to new administrations so they can gain an understanding of situations already in progress.
Tyler is among those hoping the matter can be resolved to the benefit of all. He said, “We also want clean water. We don’t want to kill the tourism trade.” He believes both industries can co-exist while preserving environmental integrity. Preventing Twin Metals from preparing an environmental impact statement, however, goes too far and violates Minnesota’s long-standing regulatory process. Norr said Jobs for Minnesotans also favors using the existing regulatory process rather than a politicized one.
Having 95% of the country’s known nickel reserves, 88% of the cobalt, 75% of the platinum group metals and 34% of the copper – which all are needed to create a green economy, Twin Metals noted, “We have a responsibility to mine these minerals here, because we can do it safely and under the most stringent environmental and humanitarian standards, rather than continuing to rely on other countries to develop the resources for us.
“Twin Metals believes this to be consistent with several of the goals of the administration, and we engage with leaders at the state and federal level to emphasize how important Minnesota is in ensuring our nation’s transition to a low-carbon future and in bolstering domestic supply chains.”
Neither Klobuchar nor Smith could be reached for comment before BusinessNorth went to press. If they respond, their comments will be included in future web versions of this story.