The company that wants to develop a copper and nickel mine in northern Minnesota near the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness decried the Biden administration’s decision Thursday to order a 20-year mining ban in the region.
The order by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was also immediately denounced by Republicans, while environmental groups cheered the move that gave them a victory after a long campaign.
The Interior Department said it would remove more than 225,000 acres of Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota from mineral and geothermal leasing to protect the Rainy River watershed, including Boundary Waters and the 1854 Ceded Territory of the Chippewa Bands, from potential contamination from mining activities.
The move could spell an end to Twin Metals Minnesota’s push to renew decades-old mineral leases in the area and develop a mine.
Twin Metals Minnesota spokesperson Kathy Graul said in a statement that the company remains “committed to enforcing Twin Metals’ rights.”
“Twin Metals Minnesota is deeply disappointed and stunned that the federal government has chosen to enact a 20-year moratorium on mining across a quarter million acres of land in northeast Minnesota,” the company said in a statement. “This region sits on top of one of the world’s largest deposits of critical minerals that are vital in meeting our nation’s goals to transition to a clean energy future, to create American jobs, to strengthen our national security and to bolster domestic supply chains.”
Lawmakers who support the mining effort also argued the administration is undermining its own energy transitions goals — a nod to the critical minerals like copper and nickel needed for renewable energy that are currently procured largely from foreign sources hostile to U.S. interests like China.
“If Democrats were serious about developing renewable energy sources and breaking China’s stranglehold on the global market, they would be flinging open the doors to responsible mineral development here in the U.S.,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the newly minted chair of the House Natural Resources Committee.
“We cannot have a future of renewable energy without minerals, period — not to mention their necessity to our defense systems, satellites, cellphones and virtually every other advanced technology,” he said.
The conflict is an early sample of the brewing hostilities that could play out on Capitol Hill now that the Republican Party controls the House and leadership has committed to hobbling as much as possible the Biden administration’s agenda on mining, oil and gas drilling, and climate policy.
Celebrating environmental groups painted a very different picture of the Thursday decision and tried to blunt the pro-mining argument that the proposed Twin Metals mine would be critical to the U.S. supply.
“Any minerals from the mine would be sold on the global market, barely impacting the total U.S. supply,” the environmental group Earthjustice, which once sued the Trump administration for renewing the Twin Metals mineral leases in the area, said in a statement.
“As we transition to a clean energy economy, we face a fork in the road,” Earthjustice Senior Legislative Representative Blaine Miller-McFeeley said in a statement. “We can choose to go down the same old road of sacrificing habitats and people, or we can choose a more just path.”
Marc Fink, a Duluth, Minn.-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the decision now puts the onus on Capitol Hill to create a long-term ban on mining for the area.
“Now Congress needs to permanently protect this national treasure so future generations can experience the peace and beauty of these remote waters,” Fink said in a statement. “We won’t rest until this entire watershed is permanently protected.”
In the wake of the Interior Department announcement, Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat, said she would reintroduce a “Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act” this Congress aimed at permanently protecting the region from mining.
“The freshwater in this area is pristine, and contamination from heavy metals and sulfuric acid from mine tailings would cause irreparable harm that would quickly spread through the Boundary Waters’ 1.1 million acres of interconnected lakes and streams,” she said in a statement.
The Twin Metals mining interest has flipped back and forth through several presidential administrations. The company sought to renew the leases from the Obama administration, which decided against taking that step.
The Trump administration then reinstated the leases for 10 years and issued a legal opinion that they were valid rights. But that decision was subsequently overturned by the Biden administration, which began a review of the potential impacts of mining on the Rainy River watershed in 2021 and canceled the leases last year, citing errors in the Trump-era extension.
Twin Metals has sued for its leases to be reinstated.
An Interior spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit. An official said the new moratorium does not affect valid existing rights.
Reporters Hannah Northey and Emma Dumain contributed.