Last-minute lobbying as Minnesota’s final decision on Nashwauk leases nears

An outline of state mineral leases at the former Butler Taconite mine in Nashwauk (Courtesy of MN DNR)

With a week to go before the Minnesota Executive Council considers a new mineral lease agreement between the state and Cleveland-Cliffs at the former Butler Taconite in Nashwauk, the horse trading for a split of the riches continues.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is advising the council — consisting of the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and auditor — to award Cliffs the leases after more than 6 years of Mesabi Metallics failing to launch a mining operation at the site.

Executive Council members have the final sign-off on the leases and Gov. Tim Walz’s administration has in the past stood firm on its desire not to have Essar Global, the Mesabi Metallics parent company and owner of the project when it filed for bankruptcy in 2016, running the Nashwauk site. And while throwing out the DNR’s recommendation would be surprising turn for the governor’s cabinet, there’s still room to lobby for a different outcome and hope for the best.

Enter the Itasca County Commissioners on May 16, which approved a letter of support for a Mesabi Metallics plan to divide up the state leases. A copy of the letter was not immediately available, but the county website shows commissioners voted unanimously to send a letter to the Executive Council supporting the idea.

Mesabi Metallics similarly issued a statement Wednesday, printed in full by the Mesabi Tribune, that said it “has planned well and is on track to complete the project by March 2026,” and continued: “Any solution that is just, equitable and fair to all stakeholders in this range would be welcomed and supported by Mesabi Metallics.”

The last-ditch effort comes after the DNR announced on May 4 that it reached a lease agreement with Cliffs, subject to Executive Council approval, ending years of speculation whether Mesabi Metallics would ever restart the project and providing a new lifeline for Hibbing Taconite.

Cliffs and U.S. Steel both put their names in the hat for DNR consideration for the leases. Cliffs owns or leases several acres of minerals and surface land inside the Butler Taconite footprint and U.S. Steel has a portion of adjacent state leases for use at Keewatin Taconite (see map below).

Courtesy of MN DNR

The state Executive Council meets at 10 a.m. May 25 at the Minnesota State Capitol. A separate lease agreement for Hibbing Taconite is also on the agenda, which is the finalization of a smaller batch of state minerals previously approved.

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