Ask any Capitol watcher what tops the agenda for the 2013-2014 legislative session, and it doesn't take long for mining to come up. A mining bill is coming any day now and is expected to be acted on early in the session.
The question is whether the bill has any hope of actually producing a mine.
Discussion of mining legislation centers around a proposed iron ore mine in the Penokee-Gogebic Range in the northern part of the state. The project has more than its share of doubters. Experts question its economic feasibility, pointing out that the ore is relatively low-grade not to mention deeply buried and hard to reach, quite possibly making the mine cost prohibitive.
Then there is the fact that the proposed mine's location is upstream from tribal land and would have a considerable environmental impact on the headwaters of the Bad River watershed. No state law can make the Army Corps of Engineers ignore its obligation to follow federal environmental protection laws during its review and approval process. Nor can any state law make the Bad River Band of Chippewa Indians surrender their treaty rights and their federally delegated authority to protect the watershed.
So this mining project seems doomed, either because it doesn't make economic sense or because of federal regulators or because of an inevitable tribal lawsuit. Looks like state legislators are in a huge rush to pass legislation greasing the skids for mining that contains no grease.
Looks like a fool's mission on the surface. But something tells me there is much more to this than meets the eye. There are at least three reasons state politicians might be eager to pass a mining bill that is exceedingly unlikely to result in the mine they claim they want and Wisconsin needs.
Reason #1: It's not iron ore lawmakers are interested in mining. Mining interests started making campaign contributions in Wisconsin in the summer of 2010. There is a lot more where that came from. Earlier this year, the day after telling reporters there was a way to breathe life back into the Penokee-Gogebic mining project, Governor Scott Walker embarked on a very successful mining expedition to the faraway hometown of the man behind the mine.
Reason #2: What they really are looking to dig up is a way to divert attention and deflect criticism. By one measure after another, Wisconsin is lagging badly in job creation. For all their promises to jumpstart the economy, state officials still have a dead battery on their hands. Those in charge know they stand to get blamed and they need cover. What to do? Pass a bill promising an economic boom and when it produces exactly what is to be realistically expected, which is nothing, throw up your hands in mock frustration and shift the blame for the state's woeful job-creation record to the feds and the tribes and the environmentalists and every last legislator who votes against the bill.
Reason #3: It's not this mine they really want. Pro-mining legislators let the industry write the legislation and showed no interest whatsoever in the input of tribal officials or the Army Corps of Engineers. That's curious since mining in the Penokee-Gogebic Range has huge environmental implications for the Bad River watershed, so this project necessarily gets caught up in the messy business of treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. And blowing off the Army Corps only stands to lengthen a review and approval process that business interests and their legislative supporters say they want to shorten. Makes no sense if you actually want this particular iron ore mine to happen. Starts making sense if Penokee-Gogebic is a trojan horse concealing the true motives for shortcircuiting the state permitting process and rewriting Wisconsin's environmental protection laws. All this legislative maneuvering for a project that has all the makings of a lost cause serves a purpose if what you are really trying to do is lay the groundwork for another form of mining that is even more environmentally sensitive than iron ore mining or some other kind of politically explosive land use that would best not be publicly acknowledged until after ground has been broken . . . nowhere near any reservation, of course, so as to avoid countless trips to federal court.