The Biden administration is poised to weigh in on Twin Metals mine: Here are the options

The forest and Kawishiwi River are seen from an aerial view.
The Kawishiwi River (right) flows near Ely, Minn. To the left of the river is where Twin Metals plans to build an underground copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2019

Both supporters and critics of the proposed Twin Metals Minnesota copper-nickel mine are anticipating what could be a major announcement in the next few days from President Joe Biden’s administration — one that could help determine the future of the project. 

Federal officials have taken the past several months to clarify their position on the proposed $1.7 billion underground mine, which would be built along the shore of Birch Lake, about seven miles from Ely and just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. 

The mine would be located outside the protected wilderness area but inside the watershed that flows into it. Mining is banned within the wilderness and inside a narrow buffer strip around it, but it is currently allowed in other parts of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota.

Opponents say the watershed of the Boundary Waters — an iconic wilderness with extremely high water quality — is the wrong place to build what would be a new kind of mining for Minnesota, one that has left behind a legacy of toxic pollution in the western U.S. They also say the mine would devastate the region’s tourism and recreation-based economy. 

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But supporters of the proposal argue it would create hundreds of good-paying jobs, take advantage of rich mineral resources that would benefit local communities and the state’s economy and help provide metals needed to power a green economy. 

The project’s fate has seesawed back and forth over the past two administrations. In 2016, former President Barack Obama’s administration refused to renew two leases that Twin Metals needs to operate the mine and also proposed a 20-year ban on other new mining projects in the watershed of the Boundary Waters, an area spanning about 365 square miles. 

But those decisions were reversed by the Trump administration, and two years ago, Twin Metals submitted its proposed mine operations plan to state and federal regulators, kicking off a multi-year environmental review and permitting process. 

Now, the Biden administration is poised to weigh in with its views on the proposal and could signal whether it’s ready to block it from moving forward or allow the project to progress. 

Why is a possible announcement expected now?

Environmental groups opposing Twin Metals have filed lawsuits attempting to overturn the company's mineral leases. In court filings, the Biden administration has asked for several stays, or extensions, so that the government can figure out what its position is on the issue. 

The latest 60-day court extension ends next week, which is why people who have been following this closely believe the Biden administration may soon provide clarity on where it stands. 

Have federal officials given any indication which way they're leaning? 

Not really. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, has said that the Biden administration wants to balance the protection of a pristine area while also creating jobs in rural areas. 

More recently Vilsack said he's waiting on a legal opinion from the Interior Department. While the Forest Service manages the surface rights where Twin Metals wants to mine, the Bureau of Land Management, within the Interior Department, oversees the mineral rights.

But environmental groups that oppose Twin Metals are hopeful because of the past views of the major players who are scrutinizing Twin Metals. Vilsack was also Obama's agriculture secretary and played a key role in developing the proposed 20-year mining ban in the watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters. 

Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Deb Halland — when she was a member of Congress — signed on to a bill authored by Minnesota Democratic Representative Betty McCollum to permanently ban mining within the watershed. 

What options does the Biden administration have? 

The administration could continue to defend the Trump administration’s actions in court of first reinstating Twin Metals’ mineral leases and then renewing them for an additional 10 years. 

Or, Biden officials could reverse the Trump administration’s approval of the leases, which hinged on an Interior Department legal opinion that concluded that the Bureau of Land Management did not have the power to deny the Twin Metals lease renewals. That would effectively block Twin Metals from moving forward.

Another alternative would be to do something in between those two actions, such as voluntarily sending the issue back to the agencies for further deliberations.

“Procedurally that might be a very likely outcome,” said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, one of the groups that sued to overturn Twin Metals’ leases. Knopf said that result would be a “victory” for environmental groups, “but not a complete touchdown.”

Is a mining ban a possibility? 

Another action the Biden administration could take would be to reinitiate the process that could eventually lead to a 20-year ban on new mining projects within the watershed of the Boundary Waters, something called a “mineral withdrawal.”

The Obama administration recommended a mineral withdrawal in late 2016 and began a two-year environmental study of the proposed ban. After that study was complete, the Interior Secretary would then decide whether to approve the withdrawal. 

But the Trump administration halted that process after 20 months, and despite calls from the Minnesota DNR and members of Congress, including Minnesota Senator Tina Smith, the results of the study haven’t been released. 

Environmental groups hope that in addition to taking action on Twin Metals’ leases, the U.S. Forest Service will also restart the process to implement the mineral withdrawal, which would block additional companies currently exploring in the watershed of the Boundary Waters from opening a mine for 20 years. 

“I think many in Minnesota have longed for that and demanded science-based decision making, based on the ecosystem and the value of the Boundary Waters,” said Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “A mineral withdrawal would do that.”

What do mining advocates argue? 

Supporters obviously want the current process to continue to play out. Twin Metals submitted its mine operations plan to state and federal regulators in 2019. The proposal now goes through a long process to determine whether it can meet environmental standards. 

Mining advocates say a mineral withdrawal would circumvent that process and replace a review of a specific project with a generic analysis. 

“The proposed mineral withdrawal is as ridiculous today as it was in 2016,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota. 

“It's clear that until there's a specific project, you can't determine what the impacts are. Now we have what everybody has been asking for, a specific project that will require public input and participation. That's what our process calls for. Every company that proposes a project should have the ability to demonstrate whether or not it can meet all the stringent requirements.”

Twin Metals Minnesota declined to comment on what the federal government may decide. The company, which is part of the Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, has spent $500 million and more than a decade developing the project. 

What happens next? 

The last 60-day court extension expires Oct. 20 for the lawsuit challenging the renewal of Twin Metals’ leases. 

The federal government also faces a Nov. 8 deadline to file its brief in another case involving the initial reinstatement of Twin Metals’ leases, which was also challenged by environmental groups. 

Meanwhile, state and federal officials continue to review mining plans submitted by Twin Metals. That’s still in what’s called the “scoping phase,” in which agencies determine what the key questions are to consider in an environmental review. 

Twin Metals officials say they anticipate the first round of public comments on draft scoping documents sometime in 2022.