Department of Interior announces mining ban on federal land in Minnesota

William Gleason

January 26, 2023

The U.S. Department of the Interior issued a 20-year mining moratorium on 225,000 acres of federal land in Minnesota near the Boundary Waters.

The decision appears to be in contrast to the Biden administration’s stated goal of creating a domestic supply chain of critical minerals as it potentially blocks the development of the proposed $1.7 billion Twin Metals project in Ely, south of the Boundary Waters and within the mineral withdrawal area.

Twin Metals project would create an underground copper-nickel mine that would also produce cobalt and platinum group metals from the Maturi deposit which is part of the Duluth Complex geologic formation.

“The announcement from the U.S. Department of the Interior today to withdraw federal lands from mineral development is a step in the wrong direction and will make it harder to achieve President Biden’s own climate and domestic content goals. As the Minnesota Legislature simultaneously is advancing a bill prioritizing 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2040, this federal action is also severely limiting how much of a role Minnesota can play in reaching that goal,” Julie Lucas, executive director of MiningMinnesota told Mining Engineering. “We cannot produce the wind towers, solar panels, electric vehicle batteries, charging infrastructure, or energy transmission our state and country needs to meet these climate goals without a massive increase in the amount of critical minerals being produced worldwide. We should be prioritizing the safe and responsible development of these minerals, not putting them in a lockbox to ensure they can’t be used.”

Two federal mineral leases held by Twin Metals were canceled by the Biden administration last year. Twin Metals has sued to have those leases reinstated however, even if it prevails, the mineral withdrawal puts additional federal leases that Twin Metals had hoped to obtain off limits, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

The withdrawal does not impact the proposed PolyMet Mine, which lies within the Lake Superior watershed, south of the withdrawal area.
The decision to withdraw lands followed more than a year of analysis by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service of the potential environmental and cultural impacts of mining in the region upstream from the Boundary Waters, and the review of 225,000 public comments.

“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,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in announcing her decision.
“With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best-available science and extensive public input.”

Lucas disagrees with that assessment.

“The basis of this important decision is not based on sound science or careful study; instead, it is the result of political decisions informed by poorly constructed hypothetical scenarios,” said Lucas. “The same level of scientific scrutiny that industry is commonly held to does not apply to the federal government and that could not be more apparent than in the environmental assessment the Department of Interior is using to support this decision.”

Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association said the decision will hinder the nation’s ability to create a green energy infrastructure.

“At a time when demand for minerals such as copper, nickel and cobalt are skyrocketing for use in electric vehicles and solar and wind infrastructure, the administration is withdrawing hundreds of thousands of acres of land that could provide U.S. manufacturers with plentiful sources of these same minerals,” Nolan said in a statement.

The decision limits the mining of a significant portion of the Duluth Complex, one of the largest undeveloped deposits of copper, nickel, cobalt and other platinum-group metals in the world.

An Interior Department official speaking on background said the Biden administration is committed to developing a strong domestic mineral supply chain, and supports responsible mining to develop those critical minerals.

“But we have to do so in a responsible manner,” the official said. “That includes balancing our commitment to ensure we protect some of our country's most spectacular outdoor places for future generations. The Boundary Waters and its surrounding watersheds are one of those places.”
While iron ore mining has a rich history in the state, mining for copper, nickel and precious metals has never been done before in Minnesota.

 Photo: Shutterstock.


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