ST. PAUL — Mineral leases — 31 of them — for exploratory drilling in Northeastern Minnesota were approved by the Executive Council Friday after a more than 10-month delay.
The council, comprised of the state’s five constitutional offices, voted 4-1 to issue the leases to the highest bidders. Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr and his staff had recommended the leases be awarded prior to the council’s December 2012 meeting. Their recommendation held into this year.
At that meeting, the vote was 3-1 against issuing the leases, with only Attorney General Lori Swanson in favor and Gov. Mark Dayton, Auditor Rebecca Otto and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie supporting a delay. Lieutenant Gov. Yvonne Prettner-Solon did not attend the meeting.
A majority of the Executive Council last year voted to not award the leases because St. Louis County property owner Matthew Tyler, on behalf of 170 other landowners, had sought an Environmental Assessment Worksheet be done.
That was not necessary, said DNR officials. An appeals court confirmed that ruling. Tyler is now requesting that the state Supreme Court take up the case
At Friday’s meeting, which the public could log into via telephone, Swanson’s support was as unequivocal as it had been last year. “There is no reason to make it (the council’s affirmative vote) conditional,” she said in response to a question from the governor about what would happen to the Executive Council’s decision if the Supreme Court supported the landowners’ petition.
“There is not an automatic appeals right. They (the state high court) take a small sliver of cases filed,” Swanson said.
The attorney general said the council is basically being asked to approve a real estate transaction between the DNR and those getting the leases. “There is nothing that would undo that action. We have that authority under the law,” Swanson said.
Lt. Gov. Prettner-Solon, who conducted the meeting because the governor was at his residence recuperating for a medical procedure on his hip and attended via telephone, gave an historical outline of the issue.
She said the EAW “is not needed at this stage. For me, I’m compelled to vote in favor of these leases.”
Ritchie was a reluctant “yes” vote. He said the council needs to do more than approve leases.
“Our role is to approve. But we have to be debating, not just approving. I appreciate the small, but not deep discussion of long-term problems. If we create enough enemies by this process, a mine will not be done in time,” he said.
Auditor Otto said she “had a revelation at 3:30 (a.m.) and had been awake ever since. I’m thinking about the next generation. What I don’t want to do today is put a burden on future generations.”
Otto said she is “not against mining.” Then she voted no on issuing the exploratory leases to drill holes to retrieve sample cores of copper/nickel/precious metals resources.
DNR Commissioner Landwehr and his staff told the council that only 2.4 percent of land on leases issued have one hole drilled; and when that increases to two holes, the low percentage drops even more.
Three opponents of the leases, including Tyler and preservationist activist Bob Tammen of Soudan, spoke at the meeting. Three supporters, including IDEA Drilling President Bill Travis, spoke in support of awarding the leases.