The Interior Department on Thursday issued a 20-year mining moratorium for over 225,000 acres of federal land in northeastern Minnesota that had been eyed for a potential copper and nickel mine.
The public land order signed by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland withdrew the area, which is upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, from consideration for leasing under federal laws. The move came after the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service evaluated the environmental impacts of mineral development in the region.
“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans,” Haaland said in a statement. “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.”
Under federal law the Interior secretary can only withdraw this area for a maximum of 20 years, however it can be renewed. A permanent withdrawal would require an act of Congress.
The move drew criticism from the industry and the Republican congressman for the district, who said it would force the Biden administration to look overseas for the minerals.
Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Chilean mining firm Antofagasta, estimated that the $1.7 billion project would produce 180 million tons of ore over its lifetime. President Barack Obama first proposed withdrawing the area for mineral development in 2016, but the Trump administration reversed course and approved leases for the project in 2019.
The Biden administration canceled the leases in January 2022 after determining they were improperly issued. Twin Metals filed a suit challenging this decision in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia last August.
Environmental groups said the move would protect the region from potential contamination, which could include heavy metals and sulfuric acid from mine tailings, and preserve the region’s outdoor tourism industry. The Interior Department said Boundary Waters receives 150,000 visitors each year.
“The Boundary Waters is a paradise of woods and water. It is an ecological marvel, a world-class outdoor destination, and an economic engine for hundreds of businesses and many thousands of people,” Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement.
However, National Mining Association President Rich Nolan said the move runs counter to the Biden administration’s goals of speeding up adoption of electric vehicles and solar and wind infrastructure, which has increased mineral demand.
Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., who represents the region, said the administration “will answer for the pain they elected to cause my constituents today.”
“America needs to develop our vast mineral wealth, right here at home, with high-wage, union-protected jobs instead of continuing to send American taxpayer dollars to countries like the Congo that use child slave labor,” Stauber said in a statement. “The only winner here is China, as Joe Biden continues to hand our foreign adversaries every advantage possible.”
Twin Metals said it was “deeply disappointed and stunned” that the moratorium was enacted and that the minerals are “vital in meeting our nation’s goals to transition to a clean energy future.”