Tag Archives: anti-science

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.

A Meeting in Santiago about Mining in Minnesota

I’d like to focus, in this post, on what is so far a unique entry in the Twin Metals timeline: an April meeting at the US Embassy in Santiago Chile, with Ivan Arriagada, the CEO of Antofagasta Plc, and Carol M. Perez, the US ambassador to Chile. We know about this meeting only through documents obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, and specifically from just one email dated 26 April 2017, sent by Briana Collier to Jack Haugrud:

BrianaColliertoJackHaugrud

Intriguing: but for now, the best I can do is provide a little context.

As the timeline shows, the meeting at the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile in the week of April 26th took place during a period of intense activity around the Twin Metals project. It was held just a little over a week after Mr. Arriagada had written directly to then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, requesting an in-person meeting in Washington, DC, on either May 2nd or 3rd. (Arriagada would come to Interior for the first time on the 3rd. Internal emails show that he met on that occasion with several officials at the Department of the Interior, but Zinke is not among them, at least not on the calendar entries I have seen; and if Arriagada met with Zinke separately on May 3rd, there is no entry for any such meeting on Zinke’s official calendar.) So perhaps the embassy in Santiago serves as a way station of sorts, a first stop for Arriagada on his American tour.

It was probably here, in Santiago, that Arriagada first started to make the case he would make in Washington, DC. The letter to Ryan Zinke lays out the appeal the mining company would make at Interior, and it also helps us gain an impression of what this meeting at the embassy was about. It opens with Arriagada declaring that he is “proud” to associate himself and his company — which has never operated a mine in the United States — with “the development of strategic minerals in the United States.” Here in the US, Arriagada clearly understands, minerals acquire “strategic” status when mining companies run into permitting delays and other difficulties. It is, as I’ve noted elsewhere, code for overriding and rolling back environmental regulations. (This leads me to suspect that Arriagada’s letter to Zinke was actually written by the lobbyists at WilmerHale. Whether they played a role in arranging the meeting at the US embassy is impossible to say, given the evidence we have.)

Arriagada’s letter goes on to explain that Antofagasta has already spent “upwards of $400 million in investment” on the “exploratory phase” of Twin Metals. The company frequently brandishes this figure, but I’ve never seen it broken down. Interior’s own Kathleen Benedetto will repeat the $400 million figure a week later, on April 25th, when she briefs Zinke in preparation for his 26 April meeting with Representatives Emmer and Nolan; and the number will be repeated in news stories as well. I am not sure what “upwards” means here, but it seems to be doing an awful lot of work. Principal Deputy Solicitor Jorjani seems to believe caution is warranted: near the end of his December 2017 memo, he notes only that the company “has asserted that it has spent over 400 million in exploration activity.”

For what it’s worth, $400 million is not a number Antofagasta uses in its communications with shareholders or in its financial statements. (See, e.g., here, here and here.) The number routinely associated with the Twin Metals project in these communications is black, not red: $150 million — the value PWC, Antofagasta’s auditor, assigns to the project as an “intangible asset.” When it comes to investments, both the 2015 and 2016 Antofagasta annual reports note a decrease in exploration and evaluation costs, reflecting a “general decrease” in exploration activity “at the Centinela District in Chile and the Twin Metals project in the United States.” There is the added minor discrepancy that this letter characterizes Twin Metals as a “mineral development project, currently in the exploratory phase,” while in the 2016 and 2017 annual reports, the project has already advanced from the Exploratory phase to the Evaluation phase. It appears shareholders and US government agencies are being told two different stories about Twin Metals. In any case, the big round $400 million number is the thing that sticks. It’s used to intimidate and spook. A year later, Zinke will tell Representative Betty McCollum that the Obama administration’s decision exposed taxpayers to “hundreds of millions of dollars” in takings litigation. He was probably recalling Arriagada’s number, or Benedetto’s spin on it.

We now know that Zinke and the Department of Interior were doing Arriagada’s bidding all along, and they’d gotten started well before this letter was written. (And if WilmerHale did in fact draft this letter, then it’s really just some stage business, to create a paper trail for a meeting to discuss an ongoing effort coordinated by WilmerHale.) Interior officials appear to have been less concerned about the exposure of US taxpayers than about the risk the mining company had taken on: “our past and future investment now hangs in the balance,” Arriagada writes in April of 2017. He asks to meet with Zinke to discuss “a viable path forward” for the Twin Metals project. The letter lists three obstacles the Obama administration put in Antofagasta’s way: the M-opinion issued by solicitor Hilary Tompkins; the decision by the Bureau of Land Management to rescind the Twin Metals leases, based on the M opinion; and the withdrawal of thousands of acres of Superior National Forest from mineral development initiated by BLM and the US Forest Service. Remarkably, before Zinke resigned in disgrace, he, Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, and other officials at the Department of the Interior (and the Department of Agriculture) came through for the Chilean mining company on all three counts.

How any of this work on the mining company’s behalf at Interior bears on the meeting in Santiago, Chile, and what any of it has to do with Carol Z. Perez, the US ambassador to Chile, is hard to say. It’s still not clear why Arriagada thought he should stop first at the embassy in Santiago. A courtesy? An opportunity to get some pointers on how to deal with the new administration? Or something even more specific? To get a better idea, I’ve filed two FOIA requests with the Department of State for communications and documents that will help illustrate the meeting Perez had with Arriagada, but the State Department has labeled the requests “complex,” and I have yet to receive any responsive documents.

We know that Briana Collier briefed Perez, so Perez was looking at the Twin Metals project through the lens of the briefing document Interior provided. And if this briefing was anything like the one page briefing prepared around the same time for Zinke by Kathleen Benedetto — if that April 25 briefing represents the general position of Interior at that point in time — we can observe one thing at least. By April, the US government had completely set aside the previous findings of the US Forest Service and any consideration of the serious environmental risks posed by sulfide mining operations on lands adjacent to the Boundary Waters. The Benedetto briefing makes no mention whatsoever of these concerns. In fact, when Doug Domenech took a briefing on the Twin Metals project for the White House a little over a month later, on June 1, 2017, he apparently read what Benedetto sent him and needed some clarification on this point. That much is clear from Benedetto’s reply:

Benedetto_to_Domenech1June2017

Sic. And with that sloppily written gesture, which barely manages to disguise its contemptuous disregard, Benedetto relegates all science and science-based policy that would caution against permitting sulfide mining in this region to what “people opposed to the project believe.” (The only risk Benedetto appears to consider worth mentioning is the exposure of the American Taxpayer — the initial capitals are hers — to takings litigation, adding that BLM values the Twin Metals deposit at $49.48 billion. The figure is based on a 2014 BLM report that assumes a 44% rate of return. That $400 million investment sure has grown.)

The meeting at the embassy in Santiago needs to be seen in the context of this coordinated push to overturn Obama era decisions, sideline science and environmental protections, and turn Antofagasta’s much-touted investment to a tangible asset — a working mine. Without some response to the Department of State FOIA requests, context will have to substitute for content. Why should the State Department have been asked to intervene in the Twin Metals matter?

Perhaps the aim of this meeting was not to involve the State Department at all. That may not make a whole lot of sense, on the face of it. Perez made her career in the State Department, serving in various posts around the world since the 1980s. She worked for Condoleezza Rice, did a brief stint in Italy, and coordinated State Department anti-drug trafficking efforts before President Obama appointed her US Ambassador to Chile in 2016. She appears to enjoy no special favor with the Trump administration, and she was slated to be replaced by a Trump nominee: Andrew Gellert, who was nominated to the post on January 4th, 2018. And Gellert would be much more closely aligned with the White House than with foreign service officials in the State Department.

This is one last piece of context to consider. We don’t know why Arriagada brought the US embassy in Santiago into the loop on the Twin Metals project. It seems tolerably clear, however, that the US embassy in Santiago would have remained in the loop, and in much closer communication with the Trump White House, had Andrew Gellert been confirmed as US ambassador to Chile. As was noted at the time of his nomination, Andrew is the son of George Gellert, a longtime business associate of Charles Kushner. The Gellerts and the Kushners have done business together for decades, often by nothing more than a handshake — no contracts. Andrew is President of the Gellert Global Group, a food importing conglomerate that does some dried fruit and nut business in Chile, and also counts among its holdings and investments “numerous real estate ventures” with the Kushner Companies. After Charles Kushner’s conviction and imprisonment a decade ago, George Gellert started working closely with Jared Kushner on a number of deals, including the disastrous 666 Fifth Avenue deal. It seems worth noting — even if it’s hard to figure out whether it amounts to anything at all — that back in August of 2018, just a couple of weeks after Brookfield Asset Management paid $1.3 billion to rescue Jared Kushner and George Gellert from 666 Fifth Avenue, Andrew’s nomination to be ambassador to Chile was quietly withdrawn.

A Second Boundary Waters Reversal, And Its Connection to the First

Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA would cut short a Forest Service environmental study of the risks posed by sulfide mining in Superior National Forest, near the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. The study, which was launched only at the very end of 2016, “did not reveal new scientific information,” Perdue asserted. Those familiar with Perdue’s efforts to slash funding for research at USDA will not be surprised that the Secretary appeared, on this occasion, to demonstrate little regard for science and the time it takes to do good science.

Perdue offered vague reassurances that we can “protect the integrity of the watershed and contribute to economic growth and stronger communities.” After all, the statement goes on to say, northern Minnesota “has been mined for decades and is known as the ‘Iron Range’ due to its numerous iron mines.” That’s certainly true, and it will probably play to the pride people on the Iron Range take in their heritage; but Perdue never once mentions the kind of mining that is now under consideration — copper and nickel mining, or sulfide mining — and the enormous risks sulfide mining always presents. In fact, his statement does everything possible to sidestep the issue and conflate iron and non-ferrous mining.

The announcement was misleading, and it was all but lost amid the very loud noise created by the Anonymous Op Ed that had come out in the New York Times the day before. It is, however, consequential. Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio rightly characterized Perdue’s announcement as “the Trump administration’s second major reversal of decisions made on mining in the Superior National Forest” — the first being the December 2017 legal memorandum on the renewal of Antofagasta’s mineral leases in Superior National Forest discussed in previous posts.

The two reversals are obviously connected and coordinated. Exactly how might be a little harder to say. We can start to trace their connection as early as 22 August 2017, when Department of Interior Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani holds a meeting with two White House officials. The topic: “Minnesota Project.” Here is the calendar entry for that meeting, which I’ve now added to the Twin Metals timeline:

MinnesotaProject

The apparent purpose of this meeting was to bring the White House, specifically the Office of the General Counsel and the Executive Office of the President, into the loop, or to provide the White House with an update on efforts to reverse this policy of the Obama administration.

The meeting included Michael J. Catanzaro, who was at the time Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Energy and Environmental Policy. He is profiled on DeSmog. His lobbying for oil and gas companies and his work with Senator Jim “Snowball” Inhofe and climate change denial campaigns are detailed there. Catanzaro stepped through DC’s revolving door and returned to his lobbying firm (CGCN Group) in April of this year.

The other White House official in that meeting was Stephen Vaden, who in August of 2017 was serving as Principal Deputy General Counsel at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Vaden had also been a member of the Trump “beachhead team” at USDA. These teams were sent in to sabotage regulatory agencies and, as Steve Bannon put it, deconstruct the administrative state.

One month after this meeting, in September of 2017, Vaden would be officially nominated to become General Counsel at USDA. Legal staff at USDA did not exactly greet the nomination with enthusiasm. According to Politico, morale “plummeted.” There were concerns about Vaden’s lack of managerial experience, his hostility to unions, and his previous work for the Judicial Education Project on behalf of discriminatory Voter ID laws — which turned out to be the main focus of his 2017 nomination hearing. Vaden is still awaiting full confirmation in the Senate, but he is busy working at USDA and would no doubt have briefed Secretary Perdue on this matter.

So the meeting where these two Boundary Waters reversals connect comes a little more clearly into focus: Jorjani, with his strong ties to the Koch Institute, Catanzaro, an energy lobbyist hostile to science, and Vaden, with sketchy views on labor unions and voting rights, talking about a Chilean conglomerate’s mining leases in Superior National Forest.

The Political Project Continues, Even if the Case is Dismissed

Earlier this week, the EPA filed its Brief in Opposition to the Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment in Marquette County Road Commission v. EPA, requesting that Judge Robert Holmes Bell stick with his dismissal of the case. Just a day later, State Senator Tom Casperson, chief political architect of the MCRC lawsuit, was defeated by Jack Bergman in his primary bid to run against Lon Johnson for Dan Benishek’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Prospects for the haul road are dimmer than ever, reduced to a fine point of administrative law — namely, whether EPA’s objections constitute “final agency action” or are merely “an interlocutory step” that continues the administrative process. (If the latter, the case remains dismissed.) In the likely event of the lawsuit’s failure, Stand UP, the dark money organization funding it, might fold or it might try to convert itself to other political purposes. As a 501(c)(4) it can legally do that, as long as it continues to satisfy the vague requirements of a “social welfare” organization.

Casperson still has two years left to serve as a Michigan State Senator; and while he was unable to translate gripes about federal overreach into victory on a bigger political stage (to hear him tell it, people below the Mackinac Bridge just don’t get it), Bergman, the Republican candidate, seems just as hostile to effective environmental regulation. He is, for instance, an advocate of the REINS Act (S. 226 and H.R. 427), a cynically designed piece of polluter-friendly legislation that aims to undermine rules like the Clean Water Act and allow politicians and lobbyists to second-guess science. So it’s important to remember that the Road Commission’s lawsuit over the haul road has always been bound up with a larger, coordinated political project, and that project will continue well after the judge considers the last brief in this case.