Republicans attack bill to block Minnesota wilderness mining

Mining in Boundary Waters, bill critics say, will help meet U.S. renewable energy needs

Gosar led Republican attacks on the bill to protect a Minnesota wilderness from mining. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans on Wednesday ripped into a bill that would block mining in about 340 square miles of sprawling wilderness in northeast Minnesota, arguing the legislation would harm the expansion of renewable energy sources.

Leading the attack at a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing was Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. At times bordering on shouting, Gosar said failing to ramp up U.S. mining would leave the country beholden to foreign powers and lead to exploitation of child workers abroad.

“This committee must come to terms with the fact that our ability to electrify America depends on mining,”  Gosar said, criticizing the bill (HR 5598) which has mostly Democratic cosponsors. “We’re going to be dependent upon China, for criminy’s sakes, this is ridiculous.”

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., reprised that theme later: “There are vast mineral resources there that are needed for the things that we use today, for renewable energy, for these iPhones and computers.” 

Copper is a highly efficient conductor of heat and electricity, and the element is often used in solar, hydro, wind, thermal and other renewable energy sources.

GOP backers

Filed by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., the bill has two GOP backers — Reps. Francis Rooney of Florida., and Fred Upton of Michigan. It would withdraw about 340 square miles of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from development. 

The bill is aimed at the Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta and an American subsidiary, Twin Metals, which since the Obama administration have sought since to dig a copper mine in the region.

An archipelago of pristine wilderness adjacent to Canada, the Boundary Waters emerged as a political flashpoint. Democrats have called for their protection and some Republicans, including President Donald Trump, Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., have supported mining.

“Under the previous administration,” Trump said in April during a trip to Minnesota, “America’s rich natural resources were put under lock and key.”

A billionaire Chilean businessman, Andrónico Luksic, controls Antofagasta and is leasing a mansion in the tony Kalorama neighborhood in Washington to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.

Both Stauber and Emmer spoke against the legislation on Wednesday, saying mining could be done safely.

“There needs to be quality jobs for folks to stick around after high school,” said Stauber, whose district includes the proposed mine site.

Twin Metals spent $440,000 in both 2018 and 2019 on federal lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks political spending. And at least two lobbyists, Robert Lehman and Timothy Martin, have lobbied for Twin Metals during that period. Both are with the firm WilmerHale LLP.

Lehman gave Emmer $500 in 2017 and again in 2018, and gave Stauber $500 in 2019, records show.

Current and former Democratic candidates running for president, including  businessman Tom Steyer, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have called for protecting the Boundary Waters.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has not committed to do so. Spokespeople for the senator did not respond when asked if she supports McCollum's bill.

Both the Forest Service and the Interior Department have jurisdiction over the Boundary Waters region and the future of the Twin Metals project. In 2016, Thomas Tidwell, the former chief of the Forest Service, blocked the new mineral leases for the company. 

Speaking before the committee, Tidwell said his view had calcified even more since that decision against mining near the Boundary Waters. The potential for a leak into the watershed is too great, he told members.

“The risk is just too great in this wet environment,” Tidwell said. “It’s not only in line with the science and decades of established law, it’s simply the right thing to do for present and future generations.”

Separately, the Trump administration abruptly canceled a Forest Service study of the project and region and has refused to release those results.

When asked by Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., about the conclusions of that study, officials from the Forest Service and Interior Department declined to answer directly.

“The Boundary Waters is accessible, it’s unique and it is fragile,” McCollum said. “One mistake, one failure, one flaw. ...That would mean the death of this federally protected wilderness.”

Mining for minerals like copper and nickel ore is vital in order to manufacture renewable energy hardware, such as solar panels, and electric batteries used to store power generated from intermittent sources, like solar and wind.

Republicans in Congress have used this line of argument to support mining projects, such as the Pebble Mine project near Alaska's Bristol Bay. 

At least for electric vehicle and battery production, lithium, cobalt and nickel, are more critical than copper, experts say.

Still, the U.S. is vulnerable to the interests of other nations for lithium. In 2017, Australia produced 58 percent of lithium, followed by Chile at 21 percent, and China and Argentina each with about 10 percent of the global market.

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