Minnesota Executive Council set to consider delayed mineral leasesThe council is set to act on 77 mineral exploration leases next week that have been delayed for a year because of concerns by private landowners that their rights could be infringed.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Minnesota’s Executive Council is set to act on 77 mineral exploration leases next week that have been delayed for a year because of concerns by private landowners that their rights could be infringed.
The council, comprised of the governor and the state’s other top elected officials, twice considered the leases in 2011 but delayed action.
However, notice came today that the council will hold a special meeting May 31 to consider the leases. It’s expected the leases will be approved.
The mineral leases are auctioned off nearly every year by the Department of Natural Resources to mining companies to explore where the state owns the mineral rights. The companies pay a small fee to the state for exploration and then, if any ore is actually mined, the state gets big royalties.
But several of the state-owned mineral leases under consideration are underneath land that is privately owned. Some landowners say they didn’t know they didn’t own their mineral rights. Others say they knew but never expected mineral exploration on their land far from the traditional Iron Range.
Opponents of the mineral leases also say Minnesota’s mining laws, some of which date to the 1800s, give too much power to mining companies, including allowing the companies to use eminent domain if they can’t work out an agreement with private landowners for surface access to the mineral rights below.
The issue was especially battled by several landowners in Lake County, near Isabella, where there is intense interest by mining companies in copper and other non-iron metal exploration.
The DNR and mining supporters — as well as official state law and policy — say that the state mineral exploration leases are a critical first step in pinpointing marketable deposits of minerals and the first step toward creating hundreds of jobs and pumping millions of dollars into state school funds when mining royalties begin flowing into the state as mining begins.
Opponents say the system is stacked against landowners, with little chance to say no to mining companies. They say exploration and drilling will be disruptive to their north-woods lifestyle, while mining opponents question whether copper mining can be conducted without environmental damage.
The Executive Council, charged with approving state investment and land deals, includes Gov. Mark Dayton, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, Attorney General Lori Swanson and Auditor Rebecca Otto, all DFLers.
In October, Dayton pushed for a six-month delay to allow lease opponents to address their issues through the Minnesota Legislature. But far from any relief for landowners, lawmakers instead proposed legislation that would take approval away from the Executive Council altogether. That bill did not pass.
It was the first time since 1982 that the council hasn’t approved a DNR minerals lease package and signals increased tension over mining in the region, especially into areas outside the traditional Iron Range.
The DNR annually makes available different mineral lease sites across the northern portion of the state where geologists suspect deposits of copper, nickel, platinum, gold and other valuable metals. Last year, the state offered 652 mining units across 226,000 acres in Lake, St. Louis and Koochiching counties up for mining companies to bid on for the 50-year exclusive right to prospect and drill for minerals at the site. In April 2011, four mining companies bid on the rights to explore and drill on 22 of those mining units across about 22,000 acres, much of it in west-central Lake County, near Isabella, in an area thought to be rich in copper. The mining units included about 82 private landowners.
The DNR has not yet held a minerals lease auction for 2012.