On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order clearing the way for the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline projects. Both projects were stalled under President Obama out of environmental concerns.
Citing the jobs the projects would create and promising American-made steel in the construction process, Trump waved his order in front of the cameras and said the move would be “good for the American worker.”
As predicted, Trump quite quickly undid the victories won by environmentalists and Native Americans during the waning days of the Obama administration. But Trump and Congressional Republicans aren’t likely to stop there.
Similar federal measures blocking mineral exploration near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will also bite the dust. Now, bear in mind, that doesn’t necessarily mean that shovels will turn in the near future. It does, however, create a regulatory environment where they could. Companies would still need to invest in the expensive business of mining the widely dispersed ores in the region’s mineral reserves. (As I’ve explained recently and for the last 16 years, that is why we should always maintain healthy skepticism and foster more diverse economic opportunities for our region).
But never mind if new mines in Northeastern Minnesota don’t pan out or don’t last long, or if pipelines fail to produce many jobs beyond the construction phase. Heck, old fashioned activism and legal challenges might win out over time. That’s not what this is about. Trumpism isn’t about five years from now. Trumpism is about right now, all the time. And right now, Trump has driven a spike into the Democratic labor coalition that will impair that party for years. Unless, of course, we hit a major economic collapse, which is possible but not something to hope for.
The building trades are eating this up. And any lapsed Iron Range DFLer who backed Trump for economic reasons has been affirmed by these moves.
It this were a simple pendulum, one could argue that the swing will stop at where we left off before Obama took office. But that fails to acknowledge that Trump doesn’t seek to swing the pendulum, but to smash it.
That brings to mind the old wounds likely to be re-opened in coming years. As this wonderful recent Tom Weber story on Minnesota Public Radio shows, the 1970s BWCA debate created enduring division in the city of Ely. Some of the same people, their kids and grandkids, are prepared to fight the issue all over again.
For years, the nonferrous mining debate has centered on mining projects *near* the BWCA. The same watershed, but not within the boundaries of the park. But as this Jan. 19 story in the Guardian shows, Republicans don’t just want to eliminate regulations near federals lands like the BWCA, they actually want to transfer the lands, at a significant discount, in most cases to the states.
To remind, state legislatures and regulatory agencies generally support development of large tracts of wilderness for commercial use. That’s why the EPA is so often seen as the “bad guy” by conservative state politicians and developers.
From the Heather Hansman story in the U.S. edition of the Guardian:
At stake are areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Forests and Federal Wildlife Refuges, which contribute to an estimated $646bn each year in economic stimulus from recreation on public lands and 6.1m jobs. Transferring these lands to the states, critics fear, could decimate those numbers by eliminating mixed-use requirements, limiting public access and turning over large portions for energy or property development.
Again from the Guardian story:
The Congressional devaluation of national property is the most far-reaching legislative change in a recent push to transfer federal lands to the states. Because of the Republican majority in Congress, bills proposing land transfers could now swiftly diminish Forest Service and BLM lands across the country.
“We didn’t see it coming. I think it was sneaky and underhanded. It exemplifies an effort to not play by the rules,” said Alan Rowsome, senior director of government relations at The Wilderness Society. “This is the worst Congress for public lands ever.”
Rowsome said he’s not exactly sure how the rule will be used, but he thinks the first places to come under attack might include areas adjacent to the majestic Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Those areas hold uranium and copper, respectively.
In other words, nothing is sacred. Even the BWCA itself! This is especially true if our system values the abstract concept of a “job” beyond its equivalent value in land, water and alternative economic impact.
Here in Northeastern Minnesota, the arguments for exploring new forms of mining generally go like this:
“Northern Minnesota has shown that beautiful wilderness and natural resource industries can co-exist. No one cares more about the land than the people who live here. We have the technology to safely and responsibly mine new minerals. This will put people to work and actually improve the environmental impact of mining worldwide.”
The arguments against mining go like this:
“Nonferrous mining of the type proposed has always led to expensive environmental problems, usually long after the mines have closed. The jobs created by the projects will be far fewer than proposed, and will be just as subject to the whims of the global economy as current iron mining jobs. The natural beauty and fresh water this region possesses is far more important than a temporary boom in mining.”
Both sides consistently stick to these arguments. Both say that the other side bases their argument on misinformation. When pressed, both will further infer the other side is a bunch of opportunistic sons of bitches who don’t *really* care about the people of Northern Minnesota.
That kind of angst is like a petri dish for Trumpism. One sniff of this scene and President Trump’s administration will happily intervene. At minimum, as we’ve already observed, Trump will muzzle his Environmental Protection Agency, and delay and diminish federal regulations wherever possible. Conservative trends in the Minnesota legislature could inhibit any localized environmental protection, especially under a Republican governor.
All Twin Metals will need is for their Chilean parent company Antofagasta to do is put up the money to mine. Same is already true for PolyMet and their Anglo-Swiss parent Glencore. That doesn’t mean they will (I *still* only give it 50/50 odds), but they’ll have the table set for them should the market favor the expensive mining costs here.
Many in Northern Minnesota have quietly assumed that a give-and-take between the twin causes of protecting the environment and creating jobs would produce a working compromise on mining. What Trump is showing is that this is, and always was, a question of raw political power. There is no guarantee that lands or water will be protected, nor is there guarantee of jobs or economic health. Nothing is “safe,” nor should we assume anything based on past practices.
Should a moderate come to regret giving this free rein to Trump, they will soon find few avenues of dissent. All the negative effects will be deferred to another president, another generation, and quite possibly a different country than exists today.