Newspaper accounts and congressional testimony from 1966 suggest that Solicitor of the Interior Daniel Jorjani overlooked — or deliberately suppressed — critical evidence when he ruled, in 2017, that Antofagasta Plc had a right to renew its mineral leases near the Boundary Waters.
About a month ago, and just two days after his Senate confirmation as Solicitor of the Department of the Interior, Daniel Jorjani appeared before the House Natural Resources Committee to testify about his agency’s failure to cooperate with congressional oversight requests. A highlight of that hearing came when Representative Alan Lowenthal pressed Jorjani about the renewal of mining leases near the Boundary Waters. Jorjani was politically motivated, Lowenthal contended, and acted without regard for “history, law, and common sense.”
To help drive home the point, Lowenthal produced a 1966 Department of the Interior press release that directly contradicts one of the key legal arguments Jorjani made: that the terms of the original 1966 International Nickel Company leases “govern” the two leases currently held by Antofagasta, Plc, and — this is critical to his argument — that renewal of the leases was not conditioned on bringing the mine into production: “the historical record of the 1966 lease implementations,” Jorjani wrote, “show that production was not made a condition of renewal.”
In making this argument, which involves a tortured reading of renewal terms in Section 5 of the 1966 leases, Jorjani followed the lead of Antofagasta’s own legal counsel, Seth Waxman. Here, Waxman appears to have led Solicitor Jorjani astray. As Lowenthal points out, Jorjani is unable to account for the Department of the Interior’s own press release, issued the very day the leases were signed in 1966, which states unambiguously that the leases will be renewed “if the property is brought into production within the initial 20 year term.” What are we to make of this discrepancy? This is a question Lowenthal has been asking for two-and-a-half years.
In the exchange that follows, Jorjani says legal opinions about contracts are “not driven by press releases” and offers some evasive, time-wasting thank yous for the question, but he fails to put the matter to rest. Here’s video cued to the start of Lowenthal’s time.
News reports about the lease signing only serve to strengthen Lowenthal’s point. A June 15, 1966 Associated Press story by George Moses reproduces the language of the Department of the Interior press release. Here, for example, is a detail from the story as it ran in the Fergus Falls, MN Daily Journal:
The twenty year condition appears to have been an uncontroversial part of the agreement, unlike royalty rates, which took until November of 1966 to approve. On November 14, 1966, the Star Tribune could still say “the situation in regard to copper and nickel taxation is cloudy,” and an article in the Star Tribune on December 22, 1966 makes it clear the subject is still being debated into the winter; but there is no indication of controversy over the lease renewal terms.
In the June 15th Associated Press story, Henry Wingate, Chairman of International Nickel Company, “said he expects the property to be producing within a few years.” He and others at International Nickel were confident — too confident, as it turns out. In a July 13, 1966 story in the Minneapolis Star, published just about a month after the lease signing, Wingate’s second in command, John Page, predicted they’d be in production “in three years, if everything goes right.”
Wingate and other executives at International Nickel were confident they could bring the Minnesota leases into production within the space of a few years because they had successfully brought a much larger mining operation into production in just four and a half years. In that case, they also had to build a town to house 4,000 workers and their families. (That is how the boomtown of Thompson, in Manitoba, Canada, came to be built.) Twenty years would have seemed like a cakewalk. Others felt assured. When John G. Harlan Jr. of the General Services Administration testified before the Senate in 1967, his understanding was that International Nickel “plan to get into the production” in Minnesota by the early 70s.
Wingate, Page, and Harlan were about to be disappointed and see their confidence deflated. Right around the time International Nickel signed its Minnesota leases, the company’s fortunes took an unexpected turn. Competition stiffened, as other producers began bringing less expensive nickel oxides and ferroalloys into production. Nickel miners struck at International Nickel’s Sudbury mine. In 1966, the strikes were violent; in 1969, they were disruptive. The early 1970s brought recession. International Nickel’s stock tumbled, and Wingate’s successor, L. Edward Grubb, made it his policy to curtail new development. Wingate would die in 1977 without seeing the Minnesota leases he’d signed a decade earlier come into production.
For Jorjani’s reading of the 1966 leases to prevail, we have to ignore all this history — the issuing of the press release and contemporary news reports, the company’s false projections of confidence, the bottom-line effects of work stoppages and labor strife, the economic stagnation of the early 1970s, and the decision at International Nickel to cut back on new development. Surely this is all part of the rich historical record, and even this cursory review shows exactly the opposite of what Solicitor Jorjani claims.
Postscript, November 22, 2019. Nicholas Lemann devotes a few paragraphs to International Nickel’s 1974 acquisition of Electric Storage Battery (ESB) in Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream. It was the first “hostile” takeover (F.J. Port, ESB’s president, called it a “hostile tender offer made by a foreign company for all of ESB’s shares”).
The deal set a precedent, and helped set the pattern for a broader economic transition from industrial to financial capitalism. It also helps illustrate how far International Nickel had traveled in the short space of the eight years since it had acquired its Minnesota mineral leases in 1966.
By 1974, International Nickel Company was looking for steady and reliable sources of revenue to offset cyclical downturns in nickel, and ESB’s battery business seemed to offer that. After a hard fought battle, International Nickel won a Pyrrhic victory, purchasing ESB at an inflated price. The battery maker was losing money by 1981. Inco eventually broke it up and sold its parts.
Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.
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