Interior Department reinstates mineral leases incorrectly denied in 2016

The reinstated mineral leases will provide an economic stimulus to the region as early as this summer, said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, left. U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, right, went to bat for Northeastern Minnesota, authoring the Miner Act to demonstrate Congress would not put up with the Obama administration's interference with mineral exploration leases.

The federal government has reinstated two long-time mineral leases that it now admits were incorrectly denied in 2016 due to a legal error.

Twin Metals Minnesota began the process to renew two of its existing exploration leases in 2012. They previously had been renewed in 1989 and 2004. On Dec. 15, 2016, the U.S. Forest Service indicated it would not consent to a third renewal. The move, which came in the final days of the Obama administration, was felt by some to be a political decision to prevent non-ferrous mining in Northeastern Minnesota. For example, Sixth Congressional District U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer called it a "misguided, last-minute" action.

That decision was reversed one year later by the Office of Solicitor, who decided the earlier denial was incorrect. It was under pressure from Twin Metals, which had filed a lawsuit challenging the move, and Emmer, who sponsored a bill that came to be known as the Minnesota Economic Rights in the Superior National Forest (Miner) Act, which was approved last November. DFL Rep. Collin Peterson (Seventh Congressional District) and Republican Rep. Jason Lewis (Second Congressional District) cosponsored Emmer's legislation.

"As we continue to correct the politically motivated missteps of the Obama administration, I remain committed to bringing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars back to Minnesota and putting our local communities on a path of economic prosperity for years to come," Emmer said Wednesday.

A trickle down effect emerged during the halt. It impacted drilling firms, lodging firms, restaurants and other companies, said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, a trade group that represents the non-ferrous mining industry.

“This is really good news,” he said Wednesday. “This decision will benefit this region as early as this summer. It will translate into jobs for many companies.”

The federal mineral leases are important components of the underground mine project proposal that Twin Metals is preparing for review by the state and federal governments.

“Twin Metals is pleased with today’s action by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to reinstate Twin Metals’ federal mineral leases held in Northeast Minnesota. The formal reinstatement of the leases is an important step in the lease renewal process, as described and affirmed in the December 2017 DOI legal opinion,” the company said in a prepared statement. “Today’s reinstatement will also allow Twin Metals to resume environmental study and project development activities on the federal leases yet this summer. Twin Metals looks forward to working with federal agencies in the coming months to complete the proper process of renewing the company’s federal leases.

Although Twin Metals was in the vortex of the disagreement, Ongaro noted the 2016 decision also impacted several other companies in the Rainy River watershed. But Twin Metals and its predecessor firms probably had invested the most into mining precious metals regionally. The publicly held corporation said it has invested more than $400 million in acquisition, exploration, technical, environmental, and other project development activities.