No, the Shift to Renewables Will Not Be the End of Toil

Energy derived from sources like the sun, air, and water, on the other hand, is imbued with immense liberatory potential. In principle every house, farm, and factory could free itself from the grid by generating its own power. No longer would power lines and gigantic, leak prone tankers be needed for the transportation of energy; no longer would workers have to toil in underground mines or remote deserts or rough seas; there would be no need for the long supply chains required by fossil fuels. (Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, p. 102, emphasis mine)

Context makes it clear Ghosh is thinking of coal mining, oil fields, and offshore platforms when he dreams of a world where workers no longer toil. But in his reverie, Ghosh neglects an important and undeniable feature of renewable energy: it is mining intensive.

The IEA sees demand for critical minerals surging from 2020-2050 even as the demand for and value of coal drops. In green growth scenarios, workers will likely have to keep toiling in mines as they now do in Chile’s Atacama desert, the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the copper and nickel mines of South Asia, South America, or Siberia. The list of potential sacrifice zones will grow and could someday extend from American public lands to offshore oil platforms converted to deep-sea mining.

This observation is not an argument against the transition from fossil fuels. It’s just to say that right now there are no signs the shift to renewables will undo the resource curse. Extraction for global markets continues to exact a local toll: serious human rights violations, unremediated (or irremediable) environmental destruction, conflicts over water (which Ghosh himself mentions briefly in a list of “conflicts that global warming will create or exacerbate,” p. 127), and social division. And for the foreseeable future, mineral supply chains will be nearly as long as those required by fossil fuels, strung across the globe and fraught with geopolitical tension.

A decisive shift from fossil fuels could see the end of the petro-dollar and the toppling of “global hierarchies of power,” as Ghosh imagines: “The liberatory potential of renewable energy has a very important international dimension as well: if adopted at scale it could transform, indeed revolutionize, the current global order” (p. 103). It could also precipitate another set of crises – environmental, humanitarian, and military — and it’s worth considering that eventuality.

Postscript, 20 January 2022: For more on the geopolitical risks of the energy transition, see Jason Bordoff and Meghan L. O’Sullivan, “Green Upheaval The New Geopolitics of Energy,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2022.

Public Comment on the Rainy River Watershed Withdrawal

My written comments ran to five pages, so instead of posting them here, I put them online as a PDF, which you can read here. I also made a three-minute comment in the live session hosted by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service this afternoon. My comments focus mainly on the story I’ve been pursuing for the past few years — a story of corruption. The first couple of paragraphs convey the general idea:

Federal lands in the Rainy River Watershed should be withdrawn from disposition under US mineral and geothermal leasing laws for the proposed initial twenty-year period, if not permanently. This is an overdue decision, grounded in science, economics, law, and environmental ethics.

Why, then, hasn’t it already happened? How did this withdrawal process, which started in 2017, go off track? Agency records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show clearly that a foreign mining company, Antofagasta plc, acted to prevent the withdrawal; and from 2017-2021, members of Congress and the executive branch ran political interference on its behalf. Decisions taken behind closed doors during that period served foreign private interests, not the American public interest. The agencies now have an opportunity to rectify the situation.

I end with three recommendations:

The announcement on October 20, 2021, that the Biden administration will complete the “science-based environmental analysis” was encouraging. Given all the political interference, the two-year study really ought to have been started all over again, from scratch, in the interest of scientific integrity. At the very least, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack should release – unredacted — the preliminary findings of the canceled two-year scientific study, so that they can be compared with the new and complete analysis.

As agencies work toward a science-based decision on the twenty-year withdrawal, they also need to take additional steps to restore public confidence and guard against undue influence. As a first step, the USDA Inspector General could review Secretary Perdue’s decision to cancel the 2017 withdrawal process and report on scientific independence, ethical conduct, and political interference at the agency.

Finally, the agencies can help raise standards. Industry repeatedly assures us that non-ferrous mining in the Rainy River Watershed and elsewhere can be done “responsibly,” and there are a growing number of calls, from Congress and from within the Biden administration, for “responsible mining” for the transition to renewables. How should government respond? Rigorous and practical guidance for agencies on the law and ethics as well as the technical and scientific aspects of “responsible mining” would be a good start.

Here is a recording of my three-minute live comment, which tracks all this pretty closely. Video is cued to the mark.

Rorty on Threats vs. Offers

This passage from Richard Rorty’s Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism resonates with some of the posts I’ve written about orders vs. requests, consultation and non-coercive practices, and what we are doing (or what we should do) when we ask someone to do something. It seems even more relevant now than when the lectures included in this book were delivered (in the 1990s), especially that last paragraph.

…[T]he only notion of rationality we need, at least in moral and social philosophy, is that of a situation in which people do not say “your own current interests dictate that you agree to our proposal” but rather “your own central beliefs, the ones which are central to your own moral identity, suggest that you should agree to our proposal.” …To appeal to interests rather than beliefs is to urge a modus vivendi. Such an appeal is exemplified by the speech of the Athenian ambassadors to the unfortunate Melians, as reported by Thucydides. To appeal to your enduring beliefs as well as to your current interests is to suggest that what gives you your present moral identity—your thick and resonant complex of beliefs—may make it possible for you to develop a new, supplementary moral identity. It is to suggest that what makes you loyal to a smaller group may give you reason to cooperate in constructing a larger group, a group to which you may in time become equally loyal, or perhaps even more loyal. The difference between the absence and the presence of rationality, on this account, is the difference between a threat and an offer—the offer of a new moral identity and thus a new and larger loyalty, a loyalty to a group formed by an unforced agreement between smaller groups.

…any unforced agreement between individuals and groups about what to do creates a form of community, and will, with luck, be the initial stage in expanding the circles of those whom each party to the agreement had previously taken to be “people like ourselves.” The opposition between rational argument and fellow feeling thus begins to dissolve. For fellow feeling may, and often does, arise from the realization that the people whom one thought one might have to go to war with, use force on, are, in Rawls’s sense, “reasonable.” They are, it turns out, enough like us to see the point of compromising differences in order to live in peace, and of abiding by the agreement that has been hammered out. They are, to some degree at least, trustworthy….

If we cease to think of reason as a source of authority, and think of it simply as the process of reaching agreement by persuasion, then the standard Platonic and Kantian dichotomy of reason and feeling begins to fade away. That dichotomy can be replaced by a continuum of degrees of overlap of beliefs and desires. When people whose beliefs and desires do not overlap very much disagree, they tend to think of each other as crazy, or, more politely, as irrational. When there is considerable overlap, on the other hand, they may agree to differ, and regard each other as the sort of people one can live with—and eventually, perhaps, the sort one can be friends with, intermarry with, and so on. To advise people to be rational is, on the view I am offering, simply to suggest that somewhere among their shared beliefs and desires there may be enough resources to permit agreement on how to co-exist without violence. To conclude that somebody is irredeemably irrational is not to realize that she is not making proper use of her God-given faculties. It is rather to realize that she does not seem to share enough relevant beliefs and desires with us to make possible fruitful conversation about the issue in dispute. So, we reluctantly conclude, we have to give up on the attempt to get her to enlarge her moral identity, and settle for working out a modus vivendi—one which may involve the threat, or even the use, of force.

Four Post Growth and Green Growth Scenarios

This passage about a “transformation of values on which a different kind of economy might be built” is the core of Tim Jackson’s argument in Post Growth: Life After Capitalism, as I read it.

Developing the foundations for a postgrowth economy demands more of us than bemoaning the massive damage inflicted on society and the planet through the power of accumulation. Just as we need to unravel the dynamic through which human work is degraded and distorted under capitalism’s yoke, so we need to delve more deeply into the machinery of capital itself before we can arrive at the transformation of values on which a different kind of economy might be built. (p. 131)

A longer discussion might pick up each of the threads here and trace them through Jackson’s book: the critique of GDP as the measure of prosperity (or wealth as accumulation); the discussion of Arendt on meaningful human work and the building of a durable world; and prescriptions to correct human craving and consumption, or to transform values, from Aristotle to Thich Nhat Hanh.

Focusing just for the moment on the last of these, on the transformation of values, four scenarios present themselves.

A “transformation of values”:

  1. may go as Jackson would like it to go (Green Prosperity);
  2. may not ever happen, even as we make the transition to renewables (Green Profligacy);
  3. may not happen in a timely way, impeding the transition  (Green Delay);
  4. may come about, but not in the direction Jackson imagines (Green Austerity).

Of these four futures, I suspect the second, third, and fourth are more likely than the first.

The Boundary Waters, Offshore: Luksic in the Pandora Papers

A chart of Luksic-connected offshore entities included with the CIPER report.

Last week, El Centro de Investigación Periodística (CIPER) published an investigative report on the offshore financial activities of Andronico Luksic Craig and the Luksic family, based on the Pandora Papers — a trove of over 11 million records leaked from tax havens in the British Virgin Islands. The investigation cast some new light on the elaborate network of offshore corporations, foundations, law firms, and corporate services companies involved in managing some of the Luksic family’s vast fortune, and brought me back to some of the records I’d uncovered in connection with Luksic’s purchase of the Washington, DC mansion where Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump lived while serving in the Trump White House.

Luksic acquired that $5.5 million Kalorama property right after Trump won the 2016 election, right around the time Kushner-Trump were preparing for their move to the nation’s capital and at a critical moment when Antofagasta plc, the Chilean mining company controlled by Luksic, was counting on the Trump administration to reverse policies of the Obama administration (which it duly did). This neat arrangement may not have been a simple quid pro quo, a mansion provided in return for government approvals to mine copper and nickel on the edge of the Boundary Waters, but even to the casual observer it looks an awful lot like a foreign emolument. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the matter never underwent a formal ethics review. (More on all that here, here, and here.)

While these new documents do not directly shed light on the Kalorama emolument, they provide some insight into how Luksic’s control of Antofagasta is connected to offshore schemes and how the Kalorama mansion might figure into a network of Luksic-controlled US property holdings.

One company called out in the CIPER investigation, FDMDA Corp, looks like a more elaborate version of a company I came across in Boston property records, LDMD Corp, which was registered as the owner of two Avery Street properties from 2011 to 2013. FDMDA carries the first initials of the names of Luksic’s five children, while LDMD appears to have been created solely for the male heirs. (I am assuming the L in LDMD stands for Andronico Luksic, the first-born son, with DMD representing Davor, Maximiliano, and Dax.) Two others, Beacon Eagle Corporation and Avery Eagle Corporation, also look like another iteration of Boston property-holding companies formed by Luksic attorneys, Avery Bicentennial Corp and The Avery Millennium Corp.

These corporations owned and still own condominiums on Avery and Beacon streets in Boston. The Beacon Street property includes a penthouse that Luksic (or, rather, Avery Bicentennial) purchased from quarterback Tom Brady in 2012 — which is right around the time that Luksic says he and Donald Trump “said hello” or exchanged a greeting at a New England Patriots’ game, where they would have been guests of Brady, a mutual acquaintance, or of billionaire owner Robert Kraft. So Brady connects Luksic to Trump — suggesting there might be a little more to the Kalorama mansion story than serendipity. What’s not clear is how the entities formed around the Boston properties, or even Luksic’s Miami and Washington DC properties, might be legally connected with the two Eagle companies mentioned in the Pandora Papers.

On April 28, 2017, FDMDA Corp and Beacon Eagle Corporation were relocated from the British Virgin Islands to Liechtenstein, where they were subsumed under an entity called The Lazare Tcherniak Foundation. (The disposition of Avery Eagle remains unclear.) The Lazare Tcherniak Foundation “provides for the economic furtherance of the descendants of Nadia Malvine Tcherniak” — Patricia Lederer Tcherniak is Luksic’s ex-wife and mother of his five children — “that bear the name Luksic as their first or second name and that are also biological descendants of Andronico Luksic Abaroa [Andronico Luksic Craig’s father]. They are all members of a generally defined and fully discretionary class of beneficiaries.”

While Beacon Eagle appears to be bound up with US-based real estate investments, FDMDA Corp. serves Lazare Tcherniak Foundation beneficiaries by managing and distributing stock dividends. Records reviewed by CIPER describe the source of FDMDA Corp’s funds as “mining activities in the Republic of Chile. The funds are mainly dividends indirectly received from Antofagasta plc, a public company listed on the London Stock Exchange.” Here, “indirectly” probably indicates that there is an entity — a partnership — to which the Antofagasta plc dividends are paid before they are distributed, in whole or in part, to the Liechtenstein-based FDMDA Corp.

Of course, all of this appears to be perfectly legal, as Andronico Luksic himself pointed out in a tweet responding to the CIPER report.

While technically true (“Liechtenstein is NOT a tax haven” because Chilean tax authorities don’t include it in their list of tax havens), this statement was rapidly ratioed. Along with President Sebastian Piñera’s own exposure in the Pandora Papers, Luksic’s exposure and his carefully lawyered response just provide more fodder for the debate over inequality in Chile.

Luksic’s  October 6 statement also prompts questions about corporate governance, the extent of the Luksic Group’s reach, and its attendant responsibilities. With a controlling interest in Antofagasta plc, the Luksic Group can easily thwart any shareholder resolutions not to its liking and effectively determine how the company and its subsidiaries are run, all from behind the scenes and with little accountability. That is shadow governance, and it’s the very model of corporate governance that Antofagasta brings to its Twin Metals project near the Boundary Waters.

Postscript. Oct 20, 2021. The same elaborate network of Luksic foundations, offshore companies, tax havens, and investment vehicles is evident in the disclosures filed by Antofagasta’s three lobbying firms: Brownstein Hyatt, Wilmer Hale, and The Daschle Group. I addressed the topic in this Twitter thread:

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here

John Ruggie (1944-2021)

Word of John Ruggie’s passing prompted me to look back at the times I engaged with his work on business and human rights, including these ten posts, and to revisit the one instance I know of where he engaged with mine. This was an endnote he wrote, with a link to this blog, for Life in the Global Public Domain.

It was nothing more than a brief reference (“also see…”), but it made an impression on me. After all, who was I to John Ruggie? Not a student, not a colleague in any formal sense. We never even met. But I read him and respected his work; and to my great astonishment, he read me and repaid me in kind with a small, gracious gesture.

Here, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has collected tributes to John Ruggie from around the world.

The Latest Records in my Boundary Waters FOIA Case

This morning, after some prodding, Interior sent the 18th supplemental production of records in my Boundary Waters FOIA case. This release numbers only 108 pages. I reviewed the documents this morning in this Twitter thread.

At the moment, the biggest takeaway for me is that we still don’t know nearly enough about coordination among the Department of Interior, the Trump White House, and the USDA, and how politics — and pressure from the mining company — played into the Trump administration’s decisions around Antofagasta’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters.

Today’s release shows that legal memoranda from the mining company on the mineral withdrawal circulated at Interior just days before Solicitor Daniel Jorjani met with David Bernhardt’s close associate Michael J. Catanzaro, then with the Executive Office of the President, and Stephen Vaden, an attorney at USDA who seems to have been charged with keeping Sonny Perdue apprised of developments on this front.

Perdue had promised Representative Betty McCollum in May of 2017 that “we are absolutely allowing [the mineral withdrawal study] to proceed.” By August of 2017, the mining company had offered a whole host of legal arguments that would help Perdue move away from that declaration. But remarkably enough, he didn’t take that route. Instead, in September of 2018, after a year-long pressure campaign, he abruptly cancelled the two-year mineral withdrawal study, then in its eighteenth month, and declared the Rainy River Watershed open to new exploration. Why? Probably because Trump had publicly fingered him, on a May 2018 visit to Duluth: “It’s now up to Secretary Perdue, and I know he’s looking at it very strongly.” It was clear enough what Sonny Perdue had to do. Where legal arguments had failed, coercion succeeded.

I still believe Secretary Vilsack ought to ask the USDA Inspector General to look into the matter, because there’s pretty clear evidence that Perdue acted corruptly, or at least arbitrarily and at the caprice of the president, but it’s seeming less likely Vilsack will do the right thing. Secretary Vilsack has steered clear of making any comments about mining near the Boundary Waters, citing ongoing litigation in Wilderness Society v. Bernhardt and the review of the matter that Interior is undertaking in connection with that litigation — which is now supposed to be completed by October 22, according to court filings. But as I have said repeatedly, the Secretary as head of a federal agency has an independent obligation to the American public and does not need permission from another agency to investigate corruption at the one he leads.

The new records are here.

And all the Boundary Waters FOIA records I’ve obtained to date are here.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

Ask as Ideological Blinder

I started the Asking Project several years ago, out of irritation. The nominative use of the verb “ask” grates on my ears and, in organizations, it presents an illocutionary act of bad faith: an attempt by superiors to disguise orders or commands as requests. There is no negotiating an order issued in this form. You might talk about how you’re going to accomplish the task set for you, but not whether you are going to do it. No bids counter the ask, as they do on the trading floor, and refusal would amount to insubordination. 

In Private Government, Elizabeth Anderson finds the same bad faith gesture — and denial of an unwelcome truth — in the theory of the firm (here, as set out by Alchian and Demsetz in 1972). 

The question the theory is supposed to answer is why production is not handled entirely by market transactions among independent, self-employed people, but rather by authority relations. That is, it is supposed to explain why the hope of pro-market pre-Industrial Revolution egalitarians did not pan out. Alchian and Demsetz cannot bear the full authoritarian implications of recognizing the boundary between the market and the firm, even in a paper devoted to explaining it. So they attempt to extend the metaphor of the market to the internal relations of the firm and pretend that every interaction at work is mediated by negotiation between managers and workers. Yet the whole point of the firm, according to the theory, is to eliminate the costs of markets — of setting internal prices via negotiation over every transaction among workers and between workers and managers. 

Instead of allowing for negotiation, asks and bids, which it (rightly) sees as inefficient, the theory of the firm offers a hierarchy where managers have open-ended authority, or what Anderson sometimes calls “ incompletely specified authority.” Anderson herself muddles things a bit when she introduces this point: 

The key to the superior efficiency of hierarchy is the open-ended authority of managers. It is impossible to specify in advance all of the contingencies that may require an alternation in an initial understanding of what a worker must do. Efficient employment contracts are therefore necessarily incomplete: they do not specify precisely everything a worker might be asked to do. 

The larger point here is that presenting orders as requests — the ask —  is another “ideological blinder,” to use Anderson’s term: it borrows the jargon of the stock trader and market relations to describe (authoritarian) governance relations. Instead of the republican freedom that pre-industrial market advocates envisioned, workers are managed, or governed, as teams: 

The theory of the firm explains why [market relations among equals, or “anarchy”] cannot preserve the productive advantages of large-scale production. Some kind of incompletely specified authority over groups of workers is needed to replace market relations within the firm….in the great contest between individualism and collectivism regarding the mode of production, collectivism won, decisively. Now nearly all production is undertaken by teams of workers using large, indivisible forms of capital equipment held in common. The activities of those teams are governed by managers according to a centralized production plan. This was an outcome of the Industrial Revolution, and equally much embraced by capitalists and socialists. That advocates of capitalism continue to speak as if their preferred system of production upholds “individualism” is simply a symptom of institutional hemiagnosia, the misdeployment of a hopeful preindustrial vision of what market society would deliver as if it described our current reality, which replaces market relations with governance relations across wide domains of production.

 

Are We Ever Going to Find Out How the Boundary Waters Reversal Really Went Down?

I can make a few additions to the Twin Metals timeline based on the latest release of records in my FOIA case against the Department of Interior, and I hope to get around to that soon. For those who would like to review these documents for themselves, the 16th supplemental production in Galdieri v. Dept. of Interior is online here; and all the public records concerning the Trump administration’s actions on Antofagasta’s mineral leases I’ve obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests may be found here.

This new set of records dates from the final months of 2017, when attorneys at the Department of the Interior are drafting, editing, and preparing to release the M-Opinion that would reverse the Obama administration’s actions and grant Chilean mining company Antofagasta, Plc “non-discretionary right” to a third renewal of its Twin Metals mineral leases. The emails included here span the period from then-Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt’s briefing on the matter in early October 2017 to the release of the M-Opinion in late December.

We get a little more detail here about the Bernhardt briefing — or, at least, evidence of continued sensitivity around it. For example, DOI has redacted the phrase that Karen Hawbecker used to describe one of the briefing documents. 

Why the redaction? Why should this phrase be subject to Exemption 5?  It refers to a document dated August 9, 2017, and its title is clearly indicated in the list of attachments: “Draft Lease Renewal Scenarios w[ith] comment.” How did Hawbecker characterize these scenarios?* Or could this be a case of sloppy redaction, where the reviewer did not notice the paper title in the list of attachments? If so, why should the reviewer not want to indicate that David Bernhardt was presented with a list of “lease renewal scenarios” prepared in August 2017?

Clearly, legal issues as well as political sensitivities were at play, and still are. In December 2017, the Solicitor’s office brings Ron Mulach, Office of the General Counsel at USDA, into the loop; OGC makes some changes to the letter the Bureau of Land Management will send to the Forest Service, notifying them of the new disposition. Other communications with attorneys at the Department of Justice, most likely regarding ongoing litigation, were not included in this release because they will “require consultation” with DOJ, according to the letter accompanying these records. A December 5 note about comments received on the draft from the Environmental and Natural Resources Division and a query from an ENRD attorney asking when the new M-Opinion will be issued are among the traces of those communications.

These documents also heighten the impression that there might have been some tension between political appointees and career attorneys at DOI in that first year of the Trump administration. Duplicates of some previously released emails show Gary Lawkowski, the political appointee who was then serving as Counselor to fellow Koch alumnus Daniel Jorjani, running some kind of independent operation within DOI. Lawkowski asks to see the mineral leases in November. He then drafted, or announced that he was drafting, his own version of the M-Opinion, which appears to have created confusion. As we know, he also floated the idea that the new M-Opinion should be positioned as a critical minerals play. While Lawkowski is pushing that industry-friendly line, Richard McNeer, who has been with the Solicitor’s Office since 1998, suggests including some talking points about how the public can make its views known to the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.

Overall, then, this latest release contributes to the impression that the Boundary Waters reversal was a political project from the get-go. We still don’t know enough about the forces behind that project or about the ways it connected with other schemes run behind the facade of government during the last administration. I remain convinced there is a larger, untold story here, but I am less confident than I was a few months ago that the current administration is going to pull back the curtain or investigate how this all went down.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here

*Update, 23 June 2021: It turns out we know exactly how this email read before it was redacted this time around.

And among the documents I’ve obtained is a fully redacted copy of the scenarios paper. It’s entitled “Twin Metals Potential Scenarios for Lease Renewal.” The title almost suggests that Twin Metals (or, more likely, Antofagasta’s WilmerHale lobbyists) provided the scenarios or developed them with Karen Hawbecker.

Perhaps the “comments” included were Hawbecker’s comments on scenarios created by lobbyists or with them? It’s worth noting that these scenarios emerge in the workflow at the Solicitor’s office just a couple of weeks after a July 25, 2017 meeting with Antofagasta, as the timeline shows. Did Antofagasta executives and their lobbyists arrive with these scenarios in hand? Were the scenarios the subject of the meeting?

In any case, Karen Hawbecker worked on the scenarios and forwarded them as separate documents, as scenarios 1, 2A, 2B, and 3, on August 6 and 7 2017 to Jack Haugrud, correspondence shows. The scenarios were then combined into the scenarios paper. Haugrud offers his opinion (“Karen, I”) in some back and forth with Hawbecker on August 7, 2017 that is also redacted.

So the latest redaction only served to direct my attention to these documents and raise the question why there should be sensitivity around them now. It would be troubling if attorneys at Interior were now trying to cover their tracks after following Antofagasta’s lead during the Trump era.

Federal Agencies Need to Deliver Themselves from the Legal and Ethical Morass Trump and his Cronies Left Them In

The 15th supplemental release of Boundary Waters documents in my FOIA case against the Department of Interior arrived yesterday. I’ve added the documents to documentcloud. Were I to characterize these records as disappointing, I might only be admitting that I still expect too much from them. Still, this release looks especially untidy, and there may be something going on behind the scenes — some change in staffing, for example — that I am not aware of.

First, the attorney assigned to my case in US District Court contacted me a couple of weeks ago to let me know that this production would be a few days late. When it came, the response letter, which accompanies every release and describes how many pages were reviewed, how many withheld, what exemptions were used, and so on, was missing. (Someone just forgot to attach it to the email, which begins “Attached is the Solicitor’s 15th Production response letter….”). The documents come from Brianna Collier, a career attorney in the Office of the Solicitor — who has been the main custodian of records in this case. We only catch glimpses of what Trump’s political appointees were doing when Collier is in the loop.

The documents themselves are heavily redacted, with deliberative process (b)(5) claimed throughout. Excerpts from Hein’s Legal Research Guides are the only records not redacted. They would be available publicly anyway. What can only be an earlier draft of the 19 page M-Opinion by then-Solicitor Daniel Jorjani dated December 5, 2017 is completely redacted. We know from the timeline that the memo was nearly finished by then, but instead of taking time to redact just those phrases and paragraphs which were still under deliberation, the FOIA officer applied a very broad brush on all 19 pages.

The FOIA officer took a slightly less aggressive approach to an August 7, 2018 memo written by Ryan Sklar on the Forest Service’s application to segregate 234,328 acres of federal land within Superior National Forest. This is the land withdrawn from mineral leasing and development while the US Forest Service completed “the necessary environmental analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA).” The law is clear. Sklar explains in a footnote:

Just one month later, of course, then-Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue would cancel the two-year assessment, claiming that “the analysis did not reveal new scientific information.” So far, we have had to take Sonny Perdue’s word for it; the findings of the cancelled withdrawal study still have not been released. The cancellation meant that any “final decision” on the application for mineral withdrawal would be made without a complete case file — without the complete NEPA document. And without a “final” NEPA document, review would likely be guided by political considerations, not scientific evidence.

Except for an intriguing closing sentence, the discussion section here is fully redacted:

There’s not much to go on here, except Sklar’s final note: discussions of “next steps” around the Rainy River Watershed withdrawal were “ongoing” just one month before Sonny Perdue abruptly cancelled the application. There were, at that point, five months to go in the review required by NEPA, and pressure on Sonny Perdue was at its peak, with Trump publicly directing Perdue to look at the withdrawal “very strongly” and reassuring Minnesota mining proponents that they would “do very well.” Tom Emmer, Pete Stauber, Rick Nolan, and Paul Gosar kept the pressure on Perdue behind the scenes.

It’s unlikely Sklar’s legal memo refers explicitly to that pressure campaign, but it’s also hard to believe that he or anyone working on this issue at Interior was unaware of it.

The agencies now need to deliver themselves from the legal and ethical morass Trump and his cronies left them in. Secretary of the Interior Haaland should ask BLM to request a complete case file from the US Forest Service, with the necessary NEPA analysis, so that BLM can evaluate and review the withdrawal and so that she can make a lawful decision. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack should release the preliminary findings of the cancelled two-year scientific study, unredacted. He should also ask the USDA Inspector General to review Perdue’s decision to cancel the withdrawal application and NEPA analysis. And though it’s unlikely they will do everything they should to set things right — that’s a tall order, and they’ve inherited a mess —  we can expect some steps in this direction before the end of next month, when the stay in Wilderness Society v. Bernhardt expires.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.