Tag Archives: administrative procedure

What Is Sonny Perdue Hiding?

Why did Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue abruptly cancel the planned two-year mineral withdrawal study in Superior National Forest? Why has he so far failed, or refused, to turn over findings from the first twenty months of that study, despite repeated requests from congressional leaders? If, as Perdue claims, the study “did not reveal new scientific information,” what’s there to hide?

The administrative record is being deliberately kept from us, it seems. Congress has yet to see the documents and analysis the Secretary of Agriculture is supposed to have consulted before issuing his decision to clear the way for copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters. The American public has no assurance that Perdue or the Trump administration “acted in good faith,” as the editors of the Star Tribune put it over the weekend, or even, I would add, in compliance with administrative law. As things stand, “disturbing questions remain about whether [an] industry-friendly outcome was driven by science or politics. If there’s nothing to hide, there should be no delays in providing this information to the public.”

At a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, April 9th, Representative Betty McCollum asked the Secretary of Agriculture to address some of those concerns. (The video is cued to the start of McCollum’s question time.)

Some highlights.

Back in May of 2017, Secretary Perdue had reassured McCollum and an Interior subcommittee that he would “absolutely” allow the planned two-year study to go forward. But his words, McCollum says, have been “completely belied by [his] actions.”

You failed to live up to your words when you announced in September the abrupt cancellation of the mineral withdrawal study. Twenty months into a twenty-four month study review. Twenty months of collecting public input. Twenty months of science-based assessment. And all you released was a one-page press release. And that’s completely inadequate. We still have not seen any of the science behind the science-based decision. I have sent multiple letters, first in November and then again on March 1st, along with the Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, asking your agency to release the relevant documentation from the twenty-month review. Your own press release said the review included …”a mineral resource report, a biological and economic impact assessment, potential impacts to water resources, wilderness areas, and cultural resources.” Secretary Perdue, were all those reports completed as part of the environmental assessment?

Perdue: I can’t answer that question directly, Ma’am.

McCollum: So if you don’t have complete scientific reports to review before making your decision to cancel the withdrawal, one has to ask what your decision was based on. Do you have any idea what your decision was based on, sir?

Perdue says he does have an idea, but in the exchange that follows, he manages only a jumbled statement.

When I learned that Minnesota really has the last vote on this as a state government, and where the governor had determined already that he was not going to allow this to go forward, it made no sense to me to proceed to — certainly, there’s been not one permit issued, there will not be one permit issued until it’s a complete environmental impact statement and study, based on that, and it looked to me it would be duplicative after I realized that, after my statement to you in May of 17 at my first hearing, and therefore the state of Minnesota has the last vote on this, and I would expect them to do what the citizens of Minnesota would decide.

If I may venture a paraphrase: the Secretary of Agriculture cancelled the scientific study of mineral withdrawal, because — try to follow the reasoning here — once Superior National Forest is no longer subject to withdrawal, and the permitting process for new mining can get underway in earnest, there will be environmental impact assessments done. Those assessments will involve science, or “study.” Why finish the two-year study to determine whether any mining should be done at all, when we’re just going to do more scientific study later, in order to issue mining permits? And since the governor and the people of Minnesota seem to be against the whole thing anyway, science is irrelevant.

This is arrant nonsense, and shows an utter disregard for administrative procedure and a lack of preparation that borders on contempt of Congress. Still, it might help settle the question whether Perdue’s decision was driven by “science or politics.” Secretary Perdue seems not even to understand the role scientific study plays in the Forest Service’s disposition of public lands, or he just doesn’t care. Consider his attitude toward scientific study in the press release he issued back in September of 2018. There, Perdue boasted that by cancelling the two-year study he had removed a “major obstacle,” a “roadblock,” to mineral leasing on the edge of the Boundary Waters. Now, “interested companies may seek to lease minerals in the watershed.”

McCollum was not satisfied with any of this — why should she be? — and she reminded Perdue that his actions have already had serious consequences.

Well, sir, I respectfully disagree with your analysis of this. Once the Forest Service didn’t go forward on the study, BLM started moving forward on lease renewal. Once the study wasn’t completed and I asked for all the information on it, taxpayers paid for it, I have not received it. So sir, I feel that the Forest Service did not fulfill its congressional obligation by moving forward with the full two-year study, and the watershed that the Boundary Waters is in, all water’s precious, but it makes no sense to me at all that the Forest Service abandoned its due diligence research… Your stopping the study started a rollercoaster of events that will lead, possibly, to the destruction of these pristine waters.

McCollum has once again raised the alarm. Where are the whistleblowers?

Read more posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

David Bernhardt’s Briefings on the Boundary Waters Reversal

bernhardttwinmetals4oct2017.pngIt appears the FOIA department of the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of Interior has gone quiet on me, and has made it a practice if not a policy no longer to reply to emails or return phone calls about the status of my outstanding FOIA request. I should not like to think that they are giving me the cold shoulder because I published the first two batches of documents they produced, or that they are deliberately withholding or delaying the release of more documents. But with each passing day it’s getting harder to avoid a conclusion along those lines.

While trying to figure out if I’ve constructively exhausted administrative remedies pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(C)(i), which would give me grounds for a legal complaint, I thought I would look at the calendar entries recently posted online by the Department of the Interior for David Bernhardt, and see what I could learn about the role he played in the Boundary Waters reversal.

Before his nomination to be Secretary of the Interior (which the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee just advanced), Bernhardt served as Deputy Secretary of the Interior under Ryan Zinke. Before that, he was the head of the energy, environment and resources division at the lobbying firm Brownstein, Hyatt, et al; he represented many oil, gas and mining companies, and it remains unclear whether, or to what extent, he has severed ties with former private sector clients.

Bernhardt has balked at the requirement that he keep an official calendar, which would at least allow the American public to see who he’s been meeting with. The closest we have are typed agendas or “daily cards,” which list appointments and calls. The agenda items offer little detail, rarely specifying the subject of a meeting. This looks like more than just laziness or negligence. Bernhardt seems to believe the rules do not or should not apply to him, and he appears to be contemptuous of administrative process, norms, and law.

Much the same can be said for the PDF of Bernhardt’s calendar entries the Department of Interior released. There was no attempt to fill or even call out gaps in the record. Pages and entries are out of chronological order, November mixed with September, 2017 with 2018. Adding to the confusion, the PDF is not searchable; it is simply an image of the daily cards. Fortunately, my friend Michael Miles was able to perform a little software magic, and — voila! — we now have a searchable version of the 439 pages of daily cards that Interior produced. It’s online here.

We knew before this that Bernhardt was scheduled to be briefed on the Twin Metals matter sometime in August of 2017. As the timeline indicates, on Sunday, August 6th, Associate Solicitor Karen Hawbecker forwarded a briefing paper to her colleague Jack Haugrud “about the Twin Metals litigation in preparation for a briefing with David Bernhardt.” This was probably some version of the one page briefing that Kathleen Benedetto had prepared for Ryan Zinke back in April of 2017, and which had been adapted and forwarded to the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile at around the same time, in preparation for meetings with Antofagasta’s CEO, Ivan Arriagada. Bernhardt’s briefing would have reflected the progress that the Solicitor’s office had made since that time on the effort to reverse Solicitor Tompkins’ 2016 M-Opinion, following Seth Waxman’s blueprint.

It’s difficult to say whether this August briefing ever took place. Bernhardt’s daily cards show a meeting with Kathleen Benedetto on August 28th, 2017; and Benedetto at the time was carrying the Twin Metals brief. So perhaps that’s it. The daily cards also help us establish a little context for Bernhardt’s August briefing. We can see from his calendar that Bernhardt was in constant and regular contact with Michael J. Catanzaro, who was Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Energy and Environmental Policy before leaving in April, 2018. Bernahrdt and Catanzaro have a weekly call; sometimes they have lunch together. No surprise, as the two men come from the same world of lobbying for oil, gas, and mining interests; but what’s interesting about their regular contact is that it establishes a clear line of communication between the White House, or the Executive Office of the President, where Catanzaro served, and the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.

The revolving door puts one powerful lobbyist in the White House and another at Interior, and the two of them get together regularly, no doubt to discuss a shared agenda.

About a week before Bernhardt met with Benedetto, on August 22nd, 2017, Catanzaro meets to discuss the “Minnesota Project” with Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani. Joining them to discuss the reversal is Stephen Vaden, an attorney from USDA. Two days after that, August 24th*, Bernhardt along with other high level Department of Interior officials hosts the CEO Critical Minerals Roundtable, with the CEOs of 16 mining companies. I’m unable to determine who those 16 CEOs were, but minutes from the annual meeting of the Women’s Mining Coalition on September 1, 2017, tell us that Pershing Gold was among the invitees, and the focus of the roundtable was “how to remove barriers to critical minerals, concerted focus at high level to improve permitting conditions.” Was anyone there to talk about removing barriers to mine the Duluth Complex? The CEO of Twin Metals? Polymet? Antofagasta? Glencore? I’ll do a little more poking around to see if I can find out who the CEO attendees were, and if I can’t come up with anything, I suppose I’ll have to file yet another FOIA request.**

Among the documents already produced by Interior, the earliest reference I’ve found to the Twin Metals matter is a February 2, 2017 Information/Briefing Memorandum [page 4390] prepared by Kristin Ball, Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management, for Katherine MacGregor, who at that time was Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management. (Michael Nedd’s February 7th, 2017 email has been superseded in this regard; and it makes sense that the initiative appears to have come from MacGregor, not from Nedd. The timeline now reflects MacGregor’s role as prime mover.) In her memo, Ball notes that in the Superior National Forest area proposed for withdrawal, there are deposits of “Copper, nickel, palladium, platinum, gold, and silver” and adds, “Deposits contain critical minerals, due to technological applications.” This early memo establishes a theme that will run through Bernhardt’s arrival at Interior and culminate in the December 19, 2017 release of a new list of critical minerals by the United States Geological Service. That comes just three days before the Jorjani M-Opinion is made public. As I noted in an earlier post, emails show political appointee Gary Lawkowski recommending the Office of the Solicitor spin its December 22nd release with talking points about critical minerals.

Bernhardt was next briefed on the Boundary Waters reversal on October 4, 2017. His daily cards show the meeting at 11AM on that day. It was timely. Just one day before, Bernhardt spoke with Representative Tom Emmer, the Minnesota Republican who, along with Rick Nolan and Arizona’s Paul Gosar, has been working steadily to open the Duluth Complex to mining. This phone call now appears on the Twin Metals timeline. What Emmer and Bernhardt discussed is not specified. Gareth Rees was in the meeting, but the 10:30AM call with Emmer does not appear on his calendar [page 192], which on that day starts at 1PM. Curious that he should have omitted or forgotten to note this call with a member of Congress and the Deputy Secretary.

In any case, Bernhardt comes off that call with Emmer on Tuesday and into his Wednesday briefing equipped with three background documents: the widely circulated one page briefing and scenarios papers prepared back in April, and a July 24 BLM paper on the withdrawal. Correspondence shows that Bernhardt asks to see the 1966 and 2004 leases, along with the M-Opinion prepared by Solicitor Tompkins. It’s clear from Karen Hawbecker’s response that the focus of the discussion at this juncture are the renewal terms in the 1966 leases. Hawbecker directs him to them: Section 5, page 8.

HawbeckertoBernhardt4Oct17

Why this focus? Section 5 will be critical to a legal argument Jorjani ultimately makes in his memo, which is that according to the 1966 leases, production — actually getting a mining operation up and running — is not a precondition for renewal: “the commencement of production is…not a condition precedent to the right to a renewal.” This is another argument Jorjani borrows from Antofagasta’s lawyer Seth Waxman; and for Waxman, reading a production requirement into the 1966 leases counts as one of the “overarching errors” in Solicitor Tompkin’s M-Opinion. “Section 5 instead creates a production incentive” (cf. Jorjani page 6). As Representative Alan Lowenthal pointed out in a congressional hearing back in March, this argument may be ingenious, but it flies directly in the face of a 1966 BLM press release specifying a production requirement for renewal.

Regardless, by autumn of 2017, David Bernhardt had been briefed on the Waxman-Jorjani legal strategy. He had coordinated with Catanzaro and the White House and with Republican political operatives. He had hosted mining company CEOs behind closed doors to discuss the disposition of America’s public lands. He was fully on board.

*Bernhardt’s daily cards date this roundtable August 23rd, 2017. But Katharine MacGregor’s calendar (page 24) shows the event on the 24th, and a walk through or rehearsal of the event on the 23rd. I am inclined to trust MacGregor’s calendar over Bernhardt’s sloppily compiled cards. It is entered correctly on another Bernhardt calendar for August, 2017. Why the discrepancy?

**UPDATE, September 5, 2019: Though I have not yet received a response to my April FOIA requests regarding the CEO Critical Minerals Roundtable, another request has turned up a list of attendees. Lydia Dennett’s excellent investigation of the CEO Roundtable for the Project on Government Oversight drew my attention to it. Here is the list of attendees, as of August 18, 2017:
CriticalMineralsRoundtable20190827

Read other posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here