Biden closing the door on U.S. mining

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Early on, President Joe Biden promised multitudes of “good-paying, union jobs to fuel his massive push for wind and solar powered electric vehicles, EV charging stations, and the tiny portion of his “infrastructure” package that actually involves road and bridge construction.

But it now appears many, if not most, of those “good-paying, union jobs” will be sacrificed on the altar of “climate catastrophe” and Native American rights. Already Biden’s EPA has “reopened” permits issued for two major copper mines, barred mining operations on federal lands, and given radical preservationists oversight of mining operations.

Last fall, as a candidate for the White House, Joe Biden had reportedly sent signals to U.S. mine workers that his administration “would support boosting domestic production of metals used to make electric vehicles, solar panels, and other product crucial to his climate plan.”

According to Reuters’ Ernest Scheyder, Biden at the time supported “bipartisan” efforts to foster a domestic supply chain for lithium, copper, rare-earths, nickel, and other materials identified by the Interior Department as “critical” for meeting domestic raw materials needs.

But Scheyder, noting that “the Obama Administration enacted rigorous environmental regulations that slowed the U.S. mining sector growth,” added the caveat that Biden “has been expected to continue in that vein.”

Remember the 14-day lockdown? Now we have the 60-day (or 90-day) “permit review.” On his first day in office, President Biden issued a 60-day moratorium on new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters; the order also blocked any new major mining actions as well as all transfers of public lands back to the states. Biden further promised a permanent ban on minerals extraction on public lands.

Then in March, Biden complied with a demand by Arizona Rep. Paul Grijalva (D, AZ) to block a federal land exchange for the Rio Tinto/BHP Group Resolution copper joint venture in Arizona. The decision casts grave doubt on the project, which was planned to produce as much as 40 billion pounds of copper over 40 years. The Forest Service’s revocation of its environmental impact statement, just hours before a deadline, was billed as “a victory for Indigenous rights and conservation activists” – but a loss for U.S. consumers of copper.

Technically, the action only slows but does not stop the mine, which is the longer term goal for the Biden Administration. The project is bitterly opposed by local Apache tribes who describe the seven-acre site as “holy,” the site of centuries-old spiritual and cultural ceremonies as well as an important source of acorns and other food sources. Apache Stronghold attorney Luke Goodrich says the land must remain under Apache control.

Last October, Scheyder chirped that “miners are betting on a friendly reception from Biden.” Executives at PolyMet Mining Corp., which has for nearly a decade tromped through the permitting maze for its proposed TwinMet mine in northeastern Minnesota, “have no plans to scale back if Biden wins,” he added.

PolyMet, whose parent is the Switzerland-based mining giant Glencore, hopes to employ 360 people and create 600-plus spinoff jobs at the planned TwinMet mine, bringing much-needed revenues to local governments.

Similarly, Twin Metals Minnesota (owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta) was enthusiastic about its plans for an underground copper-nickel mine it says will employ 700 full-time workers with another 1,400 spinoff jobs.

The Trump Administration had reversed Obama Administration decisions that rejected two mineral leases owned by Twin Metals and sought a 20-year ban on mining in the area. And last June the Bureau of Land Management had begun the scoping process for developing an environmental impact statement for the Twin Metals project.

As for PolyMet, in the final days of the Obama Administration the Superior National Forest had approved a land exchange with the company for what would become Minnesota’s first copper, nickel, and precious metals mine in the state’s historic Duluth Complex, one of the world’s largest undeveloped reserves of copper and nickel. [Twin Metals hopes to follow suit.]

And in 2019, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued PolyMet a dredge and fill permit after the company purchased credits from the Lake Superior Wetland Bank to offset wetland loss from mining operations. Also in 2019 the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources approved PolyMet’s permit to mine, wetland replacement plan, water appropriation, dam safety, endangered species taking permit, and public water works permits.

In September 2020, Ramsey County (MN) District Judge John Guthmann had found that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency had not engaged in any procedural irregularities in connection with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the NorthMet copper-nickel-precious metals project. And just in February the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of PolyMet’s Clean Air Act permit.

But in the litiginous world of U.S. industrial permitting, nothing is ever a slam dunk. In early April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended for 90 days the Clean Water Act discharge permit it had approved two years earlier for the NorthMet mine.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz ruled that the EPA wrongfully failed to make a determination whether the project “may affect” downstream waters with mercury pollution of waters controlled by the Fond du Lac Band, which has been fighting the project along with anti-mining interests for nearly a decade.

On the surface, the action might seem merely procedural, given that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency had found that no communities downstream of the mine would suffer any water quality impacts. Moreover, company officials stated that the mining plan included cleaning up an old iron ore mine, thus reducing existing mercury contamination in downstream waters.

But just days later, the EPA announced that an “internal investigation” had determined that the agency’s Region 5 office had violated standard operating procedure by not expressing its concerns about the water permit in a letter to the state. This seemingly trivial complaint once again stalled the decade-long permitting process, adding to the uncertainty that Minnesota’s vast copper, nickel, and precious metals reserves would ever be exploited.

The hammer came down again just one week later, when the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered the state’s Department of Natural Resources to conduct a contested case hearing on whether the mine’s waste pond would effectively keep pollution contained. The Court also affirmed a 2020 state court of appeals decision to reverse the DNR’s action granting PolyMet a “permit to mine” for failing to set a fixed term for the permit.

All the surface tension over these massive mining operations – which many say are necessary if the U.S. is to maintain any semblance of energy and materials security – masks the deeper issue that drives opposition to domestic mining.

Preservationism, embedded for decades in Democratic Party rhetoric, was first enshrined during the Clinton Administration. Carpet manufacturer Ray Anderson, who co-chaired Clinton’s “President’s Council on Sustainable Development,” boasted that his own businesses sought to operate “in such a way as to take nothing from the earth that is not naturally and rapidly renewable – not another fresh drop of oil – and to do no harm to the biosphere.”

To Anderson and many others, the very act of minerals extraction is “sinful.” Add to that the myth of the “stolen country” that ought to be returned to Native American rule, and opposition to any U.S. mining operation becomes necessary. Of course, we are still waiting for the return of New York City to its “rightful” owners.

  • Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, "Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout."

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