Vote Notes: H.R. 3905, the Minnesota's Economic Rights in the Superior National Forest Act
I can’t quite ever seem to keep up with posting about all the votes that are occurring...but I try my best. In that realm, can I circle back around to an interesting recent vote on a bill that renews two copper-nickel mining leases on national forest land in Minnesota. In this case, the leases are held by a Chilean-owned mining company, and I think disturbingly what would be done for them would fundamentally alter the federal government’s ability to issue mineral rights leases and enforce environmental laws and regulations in Minnesota going forward.
Let me expand a little more.
I’ve long believed that conservatism should apply to more than just financial resources. Teddy Roosevelt’s belief is one that I share, and I think is shared by many people along the coast of South Carolina...that conservatism should as well apply to natural resources and being conservative with them.
In this regard, what was at play was my grandmother’s notion of moderation in all things. This bill failed on both of these fronts and, I think, was found wanting. For that reason, I voted against H.R. 3905, the Minnesota's Economic Rights in the Superior National Forest Act, which still passed the House 216 to204.
It did three things that are harmful beyond the general concepts that I just described above.
One, it would prevent the Department of the Interior from withholding any federal land in northern Minnesota from use for mining activities going forward, unless specifically authorized by Congress. This seems to me to be hardly a moderate or reasoned approach. Instead, it’s something of a broad brush that would open all lands up that way for mining...when in fact there are a host of competing interests that you and I as taxpayers hold on those federal lands.
For instance, an economic analysis by Key-Log Economics LLC shows that sulfide-ore mining on Superior National Forest lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters could lead to the loss of nearly 5,000 jobs in tourism, 5,000 to 22,000 jobs in the rest of the economy, a $1.6 billion loss in annual income, and a $500 million reduction in private property values. On the other hand, Twin Metals Minnesota expects its renewed mining operation to bring 650 direct jobs and 1,300 indirect jobs to northeastern Minnesota. The economic math here just doesn’t add up to this being in the better interest of Minnesotans. This is not to say that either interest is better than the other...just that both should be included on a case-by-case basis in evaluating how to use these federal lands. This bill did not do that and in fact as an operating reality eliminated these dual considerations.
What’s important to consider in this bill’s impact is the fact that this is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Back when I was a boy scout, our troop took a trip to the Boundary Waters. It’s considered to be a pristine part of our country. This bill would reinstate two leases for copper-nickel mining in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest held by Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, which is owned by Chile-based Antofagasta Plc. In 2016, the Bureau of Land Management denied a request from Twin Metals to renew the leases, citing concerns over the potential harm being done to land in and around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Two, it would prohibit establishing new national monuments, or expanding existing ones, within United States Forest Service lands in Minnesota, again unless specifically authorized by Congress. This provision actually made sense because I think the Antiquities Act has been overused by the executive branch as a way of going around the Congress. The problem here is that the bill only applied it to Minnesota. If we’re going to change the Antiquities Act, I think we should do it nationwide as opposed to for one state.
Three, the bill would require that all new and existing mining leases on United States Forest Service land in Minnesota be “indeterminate preference right leases,” which last until every bit of mineral has been mined from the land in question and are automatically renewed unless the mining company breeches contract. This prevents Congress and the administration from doing what they’re supposed to do in oversight. Both entities have a responsibility to look under the hood and determine whether or not we want to keep going with what we’ve got going. Instead, this bill puts in place a perpetual mining rights lease...which looks, smells, and feels like a sweetheart deal because that is not the way in which natural resource extraction contracts are handled on federal lands.
It’s for these reasons that the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service began a joint, two-year study in January to assess the environmental impact of continued copper-nickel mining, which produces as a byproduct highly toxic sulfide-ore, in the Boundary Waters Wilderness. All mining operations in the area would be temporarily halted while the study is completed. Interestingly, the study is supported by 78% of Minnesotans, according to a March letter from Governor Mark Dayton written to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Finally, there was one amendment offered to this bill by Rep. Raul Grijalva, which would have required all new and existing mineral rights leases in Minnesota, in addition to becoming “indeterminate preference right leases,” to pay royalty rates of no less than 16.66%. The typical royalty rate paid in the United States on mineral leases for hard rock mining of precious metals is around 5%. Setting such a high floor for royalty rates relative to the rest of the country is unfair for all the reasons I’ve described above. We shouldn’t treat Minnesota greater than any other state...or less than any other state, and this amendment would have done just that. For this reason, I voted against the amendment, which failed, 182 to 237.