Nolan, U.S. House vote for quicker mining permits

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan joined with other mining supporters Wednesday when the U.S. House passed legislation to streamline environmental permitting for mining projects on federal lands.

Rick Nolan
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (2011 file / News Tribune)

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan joined with other mining supporters Wednesday when the U.S. House passed legislation to streamline environmental permitting for mining projects on federal lands.

The Bill, HF 761, called the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013, passed the Republican-controlled House by a 246 to 178 vote.

The bill declares most new mining projects as strategic for the nation, speeds up the federal agency review process and restricts efforts to file lawsuits to stop such projects. The bill essentially sets a 30-month limit for environmental review and a 60-day limit for any challenges.

Nolan, D-Crosby, was one of only 15 Democrats to vote in favor of the bill. He had said in recent weeks that he was undecided on the bill, and opponents of faster-paced mining projects in Minnesota bombarded Nolan with calls to vote no.

In the end, Nolan backed the bill that had been pushed for more than a year by western state Republicans. It appears to be a reversal of a statement Nolan made just over one year ago when he said he supported streamlined permitting but the Republican bill went too far to erode environmental protections.


Nolan's office said the difference this year is a "deeper appreciation on Congressman Nolan's part for how the delayed and broken permitting process is holding back projects" on Minnesota's Iron Range.

"Even though this is not the bill I would have written, I voted yes on H.R. 761 because we need to streamline and standardize a broken mining permitting process that is delaying projects with the potential for thousands of good paying jobs and billions of dollars in economic development," Nolan said in a written statement. "I will continue to do everything within my power to advance good paying mining jobs and work for strong environmental protections in all the laws and policies that affect the mining industry."

Nolan said he supported several Democratic amendments that would have strengthened environmental protections in the bill, including efforts to define which minerals are considered "strategic and critical." The amendments were all defeated.

It's not clear if or when the Democratic-controlled Senate might act on the bill, but even supporters say its chances there are slimmer. Nolan spokesman Steve Johnson said it's worthwhile to raise the permitting issue even if the bill doesn't get a hearing in the Senate.

Several groups on Wednesday expressed disappointment that Nolan would vote for the bill that they say would push projects like the PolyMet and Twin Metals copper mines proposed for Northeastern Minnesota through the regulatory process too fast, before all concerns can be vetted.

It was only because of current federal regulations, bill opponents say, that the original PolyMet mining plan was sent back for substantial revisions.

HR 761 is "an extreme bill. It would exempt mining projects from protective environmental laws including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. It would bypass public and community review and input for proposed mines," the group Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness said in a statement Wednesday. "In short, it would cut the public out of the process and roll back federal environmental law to the 1960s."

According to the non-partisan Library of Congress summary of the bill, HR 761 would classify any U.S. mining project that will provide strategic and critical minerals as a federal "infrastructure project" with expedited timeliness for review.


The proposed mining project automatically would be exempted from being considered a "major action" under federal law, meaning it could be exempt from requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The bill also requires the lead federal agency involved to begin implementing the act with respect to such application within 30 days of receiving such a request. And the legislation also reduces the amount of time, and limits the circumstances, under which anyone can file suit in federal court to stop a strategic mining project.

The White House issued a statement Wednesday saying HR 761 would "undermine and remove" key environmental rules.

But supporters of the legislation say the changes are long overdue and will help reduce repetition and unnecessary delays in the process of obtaining environmental review and permits.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of the Mining Minnesota industry group, said the legislation may not substantially impact projects already in the environmental review process. But he said it could make a big difference in attracting interest and investors in other projects down the line.

"Anything that will help streamline and improve the federal environmental review process is a positive thing," Ongaro told the News Tribune. "If we are ever going to develop domestic sources of strategic metals, including here in Minnesota, we need to have more timeliness and certainty in the process ... certainty that there's a specific deadline for decisions to be made. We're very thankful for Rep. Nolan's support. It sends a positive message for mining in Minnesota."

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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