Some people have had this PolyMet Mining permit story figured out pretty well for a very long time, certainly far better than I did. Among them is Paul Gazelka, Republican state senator from Nisswa and the majority leader of the Minnesota Senate.

“Extremely disappointing news this morning,” Gazelka said via Twitter the January morning after the Court of Appeals reversed PolyMet’s dam safety permits and its permit to mine. “Thousands and thousands of jobs for the iron range are again put on hold by liberal courts and radical environmentalists.”

Those closely following the story may question how a powerful political leader could have so easily dismissed courts as “liberal.” But the real puzzler is the claim that “thousands and thousands of jobs” are at stake.

PolyMet Mining has promised about 360 jobs.

This seems to be a case where the precise facts don’t really matter. Whether it was the senator or a staffer who put thumb to keyboard and batted out that tweet about thousands of jobs, it was a savvy move by someone who really understood this is about politics.

Whether this proposed mine ever operates in the northeastern corner of our state was always about politics. If you didn’t get that, you are years behind everyone else involved in this decision.

Naifs like me thought it was going to be a project decided on economics. And the economic case for proceeding, by the way, is far from to easy to make, particularly if you include costs tied to the risk of significant environmental damage. Those costs look next to impossible to quantify.

The benefits, though, are far easier to calculate, particularly for people who may get one of those jobs.

Among advocacy groups pushing for the mining operation to get permitted and operating is one called “Jobs for Minnesotans,” and another statement came from this group after the same judicial ruling that aggravated Sen. Gazelka.

Like the majority leader, this group’s statement expressed disappointment about additional delays in a permitting process, although this group’s concern was only about uncertainty for “hundreds of jobs for Northeast Minnesota.”

For years, press statements have come via e-mail from this group and gone unopened in the trash folder, in part because an advocacy campaign trying to use not that many jobs to justify a controversial mining project near a protected wilderness often seemed like a real head-scratcher. Our state most recently had an unemployment rate of 3.3%. Job vacancies have outnumbered the unemployed for more than two years in Minnesota, and today there more than 7,000 openings in production jobs.

Expressing concern over delays in hiring for hundreds of jobs seems grounded in reality in a way that a complaint over thousands of jobs clearly isn’t, but why did Jobs for Minnesotans even call themselves that in the first place? If the debate is over safety and sound environmental practices as a thorough permitting process unfolds, why isn’t this advocacy group calling itself Minnesotans for Sustainable Industry?

The problem, of course, is that there aren’t 7,000 open jobs in and around Aurora and Hoyt Lakes, the small communities near where PolyMet proposes to mine and process copper, nickel and other metals.

Jobs for Minnesotans was formed in 2012 by the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, two groups with a lot of experience winning political campaigns.

These people are talking jobs, not just engineering studies and mine plans, because they know this is all about politics, and they want to win.

To suggest that the decision on whether to proceed with nonferrous mining is about politics doesn’t mean there’s going to be an up-or-down vote in the Legislature. It means applying public pressure to an overall regulatory process, one controlled by the pros in government agencies doing their best to apply the law to data generated through a rigorous scientific process.

“The regulatory process also includes public input,” said Nancy Norr, an executive with Minnesota Power in Duluth who chairs the board of Jobs for Minnesotans. “And the intention for the public input is to address the concerns of the public. And in our case the part that we want to make sure is very well addressed is the socio-economic impacts of these projects.”

Norr said last week that framing the PolyMet debate as a choice between mining jobs on the one hand or responsible stewardship of the environment on the other is a “false argument” that has only “created the divide in our state.”

Her point is that she would be upset if anybody suggested that their argument for economic development means that they are indifferent to how any proposed mine gets operated. It’s not a question of one or the other, she said, but how we can have both broadly shared prosperity and clean soil, air and water.

From the beginning, Norr said, those interested in seeing this project get into production understood that it was a new era in Minnesota industry, that any capital project of any size was going to have determined opposition each step of a long journey.

“We were hearing from the regulators … that the only people that show up for hearings and open houses and participate in this process are the ones who are opposed,” she said. “So we looked at a playbook that the opposition was using, and said, ‘We better learn from that.’ ”

The permitting process for this proposed mine is now in the lawsuit phase, with no guesses as to when it ends or what the outcome might be.

I just know that when the next big project like this one comes along, I’ll be paying attention to different things.

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302