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:
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:
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.