This Iron Range blogger is done apologizing for Iron Range cronyism

Well, they went and did it. Today I’m breaking with my party and conventional political wisdom in describing a great injustice being done to the people of the Iron Range. That’s not a light word, injustice. I aim to defend its use here.

The matter, of course, is an old one, something I’ve railed on in language both subtle and deliciously over-the-top: Excelsior Energy’s proposed Iron Range coal gasification power plant known as the Mesaba Energy Project. Today the Iron Range Resources Board approved the commissioner’s request not only to extend the deadline for the original loan payments, but to revise the loan agreement itself to require lower interest payments over the next six years, at which time Excelsior would supposedly pay back all the money and some sort of bonus on any revenue collected in any potential sale of the Mesaba project. Of course, that doesn’t get this boondoggle any closer to an investor or a workable engineering plan to turn coal into magic juice, but I suppose it was foolish of me to think officials might start thinking about that now. In truth, we’ve just started a new chapter in an ongoing farce.

This project, as it was originally proposed in 2001, was to become an innovative new way to burn coal that captured and stored carbon, providing untold numbers of new jobs and reinvigorating the East Range, which had then been knocked flat by the announced closure of the LTV mine. Initially, developers floated vague job numbers in the upper hundreds, with thousands of related jobs. Over time the project grew, shrunk, moved and changed to accommodate political and logistical reality. As it stands now, the Mesaba Project would be a somewhat clean coal power plant along the Scenic Highway 7 in Itasca County on the West Range that would employ 100 permanent people in a generous estimate.

Never mind the coal. That’s the least of our problems right now. The real problem is that the developers have shown bad faith in their dealings with the Iron Range and have nothing but billable lobbying and legal service hours to show for the almost $9.5 million in Iron Range Resources loans and many millions more in state and federal grants they’ve received. Truth is, most members of the Range legislative delegation simply realize they’re soaked for $9.5 million and, lacking pleasant alternatives, humility and/or guts, they’re going double or nothing on another spin of the roulette wheel with their good friends, their old hockey buddies at Excelsior Energy.

My friend Rep. Tom Anzelc was the lone “no” vote on the agreement today, and had pushed to table the matter until the developers would explain their real plan for the next seven years and how their project would change (as it certainly will) to accommodate the new reality facing this kind of technology. As it stands, there is NO explanation for what the company will do and Excelsior faces no obligation, other than $100,000 a year, until 2017. At that time this discussion will have been going on for almost two decades. I should say there is no PUBLIC explanation for the changes, because I have since learned that some board members heard a proposal from Excelsior in a recent private “liaison” subcommittee meeting. Yes, they have legal private meetings at the agency so that unpleasant issues may be resolved quietly.

Let’s get back to the deal, though. $100,000 a year is chump change for developers who have $2.3 million remaining in their federal energy fund. Excelsior can declare bankruptcy at any time and still walk away clean. They’ll take some time now, try to lure a few unwitting municipal utilities into an ill-advised power purchase agreement. More likely Excelsior will draw another set of snake eyes and start looking for an exit plan.

Why would Range public officials entertain another decade of back-and-forth on this job creation dud? I submit for your consideration the following observations:

Aug. 4 – Sen. Tom Saxhaug/Rep. Loren Solberg golf fundraiser. Saxhaug made the motion to accept the altered agreement this morning.

Aug. 5 – Sen. Tom Bakk golf event and fundraiser. Bakk has carried more water for Excelsior at the legislature than anyone other than David Tomassoni.

That same week Sen. Tomassoni, chair of the Iron Range Resources board, held his cabin fundraiser. Excelsior developers attended all of these events, writing numerous checks. They’ve been attending events like these and writing checks since the dawn of the concept of the Mesaba Energy Project nine years ago. These checks didn’t always go directly to the candidates. More often they went to local party units, which often fly under the radar for campaign finance report snoops. All of this is 100 percent legal. No laws were broken. But the economic development machine on the Iron Range is most definitely broken, if not rotten to its core. This one-sided money exchange is a crooked, cronyistic loophole built on personal relationships and a Midwestern desire to please the people who attend your gatherings. Tom Anzelc is the only Iron Range legislator who has never taken a donation from an Excelsior Energy official.

It is politically imprudent of me to talk about this just a couple months before an election where members of my own local political party, once again lumbering onto the biennial ballot, are greatly responsible for this Mesaba monstrosity’s birth and continuation. But then again it was politically imprudent of them to do any of this in the first place. Only a combination of political sloppiness and arrogance would allow this matter to be frog marched in front of the board in a turbulent electoral environment like the one we have. Since I am free from the constraints of wanting to be elected to political office, I am free from caring what the powerful, dim-witted architects of this scheme think of me personally. I think they are killing my homeland through cronyism and bullshit boosterism. I’m sorry if I don’t play ball like the old days.

Indeed, this is simply a rank injustice, which now transcends the matter of routine economic development policy and has become a metaphor for everything that is wrong, and everything I hate, about a place and a people I truly love. If you believe me, my decade of writing about the hope and potential of the Iron Range despite its many challenges, you know that I am telling the truth. I would gladly leave this issue to history, allowing the long arm of time to confirm my beliefs. My grandkids would sure get a kick out of that when they come up here to visit their summer cabins, maintained by hired hands from the dwindling local rabble, unless of course they end up in the rabble. Time is the one element the Iron Range cannot afford. Waiting on empty promises will kill our best chances for genuine innovation and entrepreneurship if it hasn’t already.

I’m still a member of the DFL. I serve in my local DFL organization. I have dozens of friends in the local and state DFL. I am close now to resigning and becoming an independent as I have ever been. And I mean independent, because Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Iron Range Resources agency and former Sen. Norm Coleman were vital Republican co-conspirators on this whole operation. I’m not alone in my disgust, but the deafening silence from most in the Iron Range DFL on this topic is what troubles me most.

DISCLAIMER: I am Tom Anzelc’s friend and campaign manager. We have obviously spoken about this matter and, while we are in agreement on his vote today, this post reflects my opinions only. I’ve covered this issue in some form since I was editor of the Hibbing Tribune in 2001. My single greatest regret about my time in journalism was not asking harder questions back about this project when I had a chance to expose the problems at the outset.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Bravo Aaron. Couldn’t have said it better myself, right down to the party affiliation and reconsideration thereof.
    Toni Wilcox

  2. Naniboujou says:

    Harsh words. But appropriate. I wish you were wrong, but I am quite sure you are correct.

  3. Johnny Sly says:

    Man, I’m pretty proud to send this around tonight. Brave words. Needed.

  4. Charles Marohn says:

    Very powerfully written. I agree – our passion for the places we care about must not be brushed aside by a system that is too busy defending its own to care what happens. This is not good enough for Minnesota.

    There is a reason we are in the midst of a long, slow decline. This is it, and it is infecting both political parties.

    We can either take it or we can make a change. I’m with you – it is time for a new generation of leaders. We need to get rid of this faux-aristocracy.

    I stand with you, Aaron.

  5. David Leaver says:

    Good for you,mate.

  6. I agree.

    This project has been a boondoggle from the start. Anybody with any sense could see from the beginning that Excelsor Energy was put together to line executives and consultants pockets.

    It is too bad that nobody (nobody that matters)has been willing to stand up to it sooner.

    The money that the IRRRA has put into this project is tax money that the mines pay in lieu of property taxes. Just think how our Iron Range schools would be if that $9.5 million went to them instead.

    C.O.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Aaron & thanks to Tom for standing up on this issue. I appreciate his integrity. I hope we, as a party, can come together on the best way forward.

    I’m looking forward to a discussion on this topic on the 23rd.

    Jaci David

  8. Aaron, you have spoken the truth about a coal power project that never made sense.
    Hauling Western coal hundreds of miles to be burned on a brown field near Hoyt Lakes, in order to wheel it to the Twin Cities. That was the project to revive the East Range a decade ago.
    As a mining executive for Arch Mineral Corp. and Peabody Coal in the ’70s and ’80s, I was frustrated that we never invested in coal cleaning technology. Instead we hauled low rank, lower sulphur coal from Wyoming and helped our electric power customers skirt the clean air regulations.
    Midwestern utilities delayed scrubbing the sulphur from their emissions any way possible.
    Now we have promoters and politicians touting the glories of Clean Coal. Difficult and unproven technology has been looked at for decades in laboratories, but no serious capital has been invested by utilties or mining companies.
    But government grants and the IRRRB dollars have chased the dreams of former Northern States Power bosses.
    -Gord Prickett, P.E.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Right on!

    Tom Micheletti and his buddies have been ripping off the Federal government and the people of Minnesota with this scheme for a long time. It won’t end until the money is cut off.

    It’s also a massive distraction from thinking about sensible energy and “economic development” policies that might actually have some public benefit.

    Lose, lose, except for Tom.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I appreciate your ability to communicate, Aaron, especially when you’re speaking truth to power. Thank you. Becky LaPlant

  11. Well done, Aaron. When I think of what that money could be doing for ED – real, grassroots programs to promote entrepreneurs – well, it burns. You are so correct – no big promise and no politician will ever save the Range.

  12. Bravo, Aaron. Very well written. I couldn’t agree with you more. I would like to pose two questions for your audience to consider: 1. What is the REAL money maker in this project? 2. Coal is the key indicator of the biggest power player on the Range and it is not one of the usual suspects. I suspect big changes are on the horizon for all Iron Range workers.

  13. Anonymous says:

    exactly right…

    lets NOT play hockey

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