The second postponement of state mineral-rights leases may have mollified landowners opposed to copper-mining exploration on their northeast Minnesota property. But the six-month delay imposed by Gov. Mark Dayton and the state Executive Council earlier this month set a troubling precedent and appeared to be driven mostly by landowners' unfounded fears about mineral prospecting.
The council's decision displayed startling disregard for existing law and a long-established class of property rights -- the rights to below-the-surface resources -- that have long given primacy over surface rights.
It put a small but vocal group of landowners who hadn't read the fine print on their property records ahead of the state's broader economic interest. And it may well make the problem worse for those the council, composed of the governor and the state's four highest constitutional officers, seek to help.
The council offered up the Minnesota Legislature, where there's widespread support for new Iron Range mining jobs, as a solution to landowners' concerns. Landowners planning to seek reforms -- many unrealistically want the state to give up mineral rights to their property or ban exploration from it -- will run into a Capitol buzzsaw.
There's already talk swirling among legislators angered by the delay that perhaps the council doesn't need to sign off on leases. State law requires the council to approve leases arranged by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). But lawmakers can change this. Landowners could easily lose the sympathetic oversight that the council now provides, or find their cause set back in myriad other ways by a Republican majority and an unabashedly promining Iron Range DFL delegation. Education-minded legislators will also be pushing to maximize revenue from state mineral rights and holdings because it helps fund schools and the university.
Dayton said this week that the latest postponement is really about improving the lease process. He's right that it's time to scrutinize the process, improve notification of affected landowners and ensure that the state is maximizing lease revenue as global prices soar for the copper and other precious metals found in northeast Minnesota. The state owns about 12 million acres of mineral rights. That's about 24 percent of the mineral rights in the state. Private interests also hold these rights.
But the process could have been improved without essentially shutting down much of the state's mineral exploration. Mining industry fears about local job losses from the prospecting delay are overblown. But the uncertainty will make it more difficult to attract the investment dollars for a new industry that could bring thousands of jobs to Minnesota.
Crusading landowners won't be satisfied with anything less than being able to ban mining companies from their property. If they don't get that, will Dayton and the Executive Council delay the leases when they meet again? The governor didn't provide much clarity on that during an interview this week. He needs to say more, especially if a longer-term postponement is a possibility.
As a former educator, Dayton should seize the opportunity to clear up the motherlode of misinformation about mining. Many of those attending the Executive Council meeting did not know that there is no copper mining yet in Minnesota. Polymet, the first project, has been in the permitting stage for years.
Some at the meeting thought prospecting automatically led to a mine opening -- not true; there's only a slim chance of finding valuable resources. Others didn't realize that prospecting typically involves short-term hole drilling, with reclamation afterward. Or that they could relay complaints about mining company staff to the Department of Natural Resources or local law enforcement. Fears of mining companies condemning property also appear overblown; it hasn't happened in the state.
Good information won't change the fact that many people are opposed to this new industry and its environmental risks. But factual communication will help smooth relations between northeast Minnesota landowners and the mining industry, two important groups who need to find a way to coexist.