WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan is embracing the fight against climate change in Congress even as he faces criticism from environmentalists back home for his support of local mining interests.
In a congressional hearing on Friday, the northeastern Minnesota DFLer will tout his bill to complete a land swap that would benefit the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine. Nolan also recently joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers called the Climate Solutions Caucus, and he maintains that there’s no contradiction between reducing carbon emissions and championing a mining project that has drawn opposition from a range of environmental groups.
“I am convinced beyond any doubt whatsoever that 21st-century state-of-the-art mining which is compliant with strong environmental rules and regulations, unlike the mining of the past, is part of a foundation to address global warming and reduce the carbon footprint,” Nolan said in an interview.
The three-term congressman, who previously served in Congress in the 1970s, is balancing an increasingly delicate position between environmental and industrial interests in a sprawling congressional district that includes the Iron Range and other of Minnesota’s most important natural resources and public land. The region has a strong legacy of valuing pristine wilderness and clean air and water alongside a tradition of mining activity that brings much-needed jobs. Nolan narrowly won re-election last year, and his district also backed President Donald Trump.
Some critics suggest that Nolan’s trying to have it both ways.
“It makes no sense to express concern about climate change and support projects that go in the opposite direction,” said Aaron Klemz, communications director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
The center is one of four groups that filed lawsuits challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to grant PolyMet 6,650 acres in the Superior National Forest in exchange for a similar amount of private land. The deal gives the firm surface rights to an area where it already owns mineral rights below the ground. Plaintiffs say the swap undervalues the land that PolyMet would receive, among other issues. Nolan’s bill would sidestep the lawsuits by codifying in law the Forest Service’s decision.
“Our lawsuit is to specifically ensure that taxpayers get a fair price for the land that PolyMet seeks, and Rep. Nolan’s bill would short-circuit that process and prevent the courts from looking at whether this is a fair value for that land,” Klemz said.
The groups that filed legal challenges to the land swap say the federal government erroneously undervalued the land at $550 per acre, not taking into account the higher-value mineral rights beneath the surface. Paula Maccabee, advocacy director and counsel for the plaintiff nonprofit WaterLegacy, said the measure was a sweetheart deal at the expense of taxpayers.
Bipartisan climate approach
Nolan joined the Climate Solutions Caucus in June, the day after he introduced the land-swap bill. The group has tripled its membership this year, to 46 in all; in pursuit of a bipartisan approach, legislators who want to join must team up with a peer from the opposite party. Nolan joined in tandem with U.S. Rep. David Joyce of Ohio, who along with public officials from Minnesota and the region has fought a Trump proposal to cut funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
“The climate change issues that we face are as serious as the threat of nuclear war,” Nolan said.
Katya Gordon leads the Duluth/North Shore chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, a national organization that has helped facilitate the Climate Solutions Caucus. She admitted that Nolan’s effort at straddling the issue has upset a lot of environmentally minded voters in northeastern Minnesota — “they feel like he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth,” she said.
But Gordon said it’s important to the broader climate change fight to cultivate alliances with lawmakers from areas with a mining economy. “If he doesn’t support the mining community up here, he is out of office so fast" — and the alternative likely would be a Republican with less sympathy to traditional environmental concerns, according to Gordon.
“Is that any better? I think he’s walking a very fine line and he’s doing it successfully,” Gordon said.
Nolan is far from the only Minnesota DFLer to support PolyMet. U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken also support the land swap, as does U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and Republican U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis signed on as co-sponsors.
GOP tour questioned
But Nolan raised eyebrows of many Minnesota environmentalists in June when he took a group of Republican lawmakers on a tour of Minnesota mining areas, including the proposed Twin Metals copper mine. They voiced support for overturning a federal moratorium on mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and reversing the Obama administration’s withdrawal in 2016 of Twin Metals’ mineral leases.
Klemz raised questions about Nolan allying with legislators who have proposed what he called “radical anti-public-lands” measures.
One attendee was U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, the Arizona Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on energy and mineral resources, which will hear Nolan’s land-swap bill on Friday. Gosar has said that mining interests are being impeded by “an arduous and uncertain regulatory scheme.”
Nolan said he doesn’t share that view. He said Republicans generally have shown “a rather disturbing disregard” for regulations that protect the environment. But he said he believes in building relationships across party lines in Congress, and he maintained that PolyMet has already gone through a thorough environmental review process.
“The legal process has been going on for ... years and at some point it turns into a delay tactic just to keep things from happening,” he said.