This story was updated at 9 p.m. EST.
The Biden administration took final actions Thursday to protect waterways in pristine northeastern Minnesota, likely halting a proposed copper mine there, a move that inflamed Republican lawmakers who want to see domestic development of minerals critical for electric vehicle batteries and clean tech.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order withdrawing more than 225,000 acres in the state’s Superior National Forest from mining and geothermal leasing for an additional two decades, a decision she said would protect the Rainy River watershed, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and ceded tribal land, from the adverse effects of new mines, exploration and development tied to geothermal projects.
“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans,” Haaland said in a statement. “Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy.”
The administration’s decision arrives as the U.S. and its allies hunt for minerals needed for renewable energy technologies and EVs. That search — which has been a key priority of the Biden administration — dovetails with efforts to secure the supply chains for these materials both here and abroad, from mining to processing and recycling (Greenwire, Jan. 23).
The effort, in part, seeks to supply a supply chain that doesn’t depend on China, which currently dominates the production and manufacturing of these minerals.
The decision was met with applause from environmental advocates and a sharp rebuke from House Republicans like Minnesota Rep. Pete Stauber, whose district includes the Twin Metals copper project proposed near Boundary Waters. He has been pushing a legislative plan to ensure more domestic mining can quickly move forward (E&E Daily, Jan. 10).
Stauber in a statement called the decision an “attack” that harms local jobs and domestic production even as the Biden administration advances projects in countries like Congo, which had drawn federal scrutiny for the use of child labor in Chinese-owned cobalt mines (Energywire, Jan. 20).
“America needs to develop our vast mineral wealth, right here at home, with high-wage, union-protected jobs instead of continuing to send American taxpayer dollars to countries like the Congo that use child slave labor,” said Stauber.
Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, also pointed to the Congo deal in a statement and questioned the Biden administration’s stated goals of boosting clean energy and EVs and shoring up supply chains, while closing off land to exploration and development.
“In the end, by closing off more and more U.S. land to responsible domestic mining instead of producing minerals here at home, creating high-paying American jobs and mining operations that will be conducted in accordance with the world’s most stringent environmental, labor and safety regulations, the administration is looking to stand up operations in the Congo and Zambia,” he said.
The order also marks yet another chapter in an ongoing legal and regulatory battle over the pristine area of waterways and wetlands in Minnesota that is a popular tourist destination. Boundary Waters is the most visited wilderness area in the nation, with more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes and 2,000 designated campsites within its million acres of lakes and forests that extend along the border with Canada
Haaland’s order Thursday is a culmination of an ongoing environmental review that the departments of the Interior and Agriculture kicked off in the fall of 2021.
Specifically, the agencies were reviewing the Forest Service’s proposal to withdraw key portions of the national forest lands upstream from the Boundary Waters for a period of 20 years over concerns about water pollution from mining, as well as the effects on watersheds and tribal lands and rights.
That review landed before the agencies because the Bureau of Land Management under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 oversees mineral withdrawals on federal land.
An Interior Department official on a call with reporters Thursday wouldn’t speculate on whether a future administration might reverse the decision, but emphasized that the Boundary Canoe area is irreplaceable.
Focus on Twin Metals
The Interior official said there are no pending applications for leases or a mine plan of operations in the withdrawal area, and added that the order respects existing rights.
And yet the region has been a long-standing source of antagonism between miners interested in rich deposits of copper and nickel and environmentalists and some Indigenous communities fighting for conservation, which argued that the potential environmental damage from mining could contaminate Boundary Waters and the surrounding ecosystem.
The conflict has only become more acute — and political — amid the surging demand for critical minerals to transition the country away from fossil fuels.
At the center of the dispute in Minnesota is a copper and nickel mine proposed by Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining company Antofagasta PLC.
The leases sought by Twin Metals, which have never been developed for mining, date back to the 1960s in an area outside what would become the Boundary Waters wilderness but within its watershed. The company has insisted that it could mine without polluting the nearby waters.
The BLM renewed the leases in 1984, and Twin Metals sought an additional 10-year renewal after it acquired the leases in 2012.
But the leases would became a political football. After the leases expired, the Obama administration’s Interior in 2016 advised the BLM to not renew the leases amid consideration of a mining ban in the region.
The Trump administration later reversed course by issuing a legal opinion declaring the leases valid and extending them for 10 years.
The fate of the leases changed again with the Biden administration, which began a review of the potential impacts of mining on the “natural and cultural resources” of the area in 2021 and began a two-year pause on new leasing. The following year, Interior canceled the Twin Metals leases, arguing that the Trump-era decision had contained “significant legal deficiencies” (Greenwire, Jan. 26, 2022).
The company has since sued the Biden administration, calling its actions unlawful and contradictory to the nation’s need for clean energy (E&E News PM, Aug. 22, 2022)
“We are standing up for our right to a fair and consistent environmental review of our proposed mining project,” said Dean DeBeltz, Twin Metals’ director of operations at the time. “Our plan is backed by decades of exploration and analysis and is rooted in the most environmentally sophisticated design, which is tailored for our project location and mineral deposit. It deserves a fair evaluation by federal regulators based on its merits.”
The Interior official today declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit, but said the order honors existing rights.