Behind the Scenes Discussions 06-25-2012

Consultant to analyze Wisconsin mining laws

Association hires firm in hopes of rekindling interest

A business group is trying to jump-start talks on mining legislation with behind-the-scenes discussions and the expertise of an international consultant.

The Wisconsin Mining Association has hired Behre Dolbear Group Inc. to analyze Wisconsin's mining laws.

The laws were the subject of intense scrutiny over the past year when a company with plans for a $1.5 billion iron ore mine demanded regulatory streamlining.

The efforts that followed pitted business against environmental groups and Republicans against Democrats. The prospects for passage today remain tenuous.

The association is hoping the consultant will provide a fresh perspective on the state of mining and rekindle interest after legislation in March failed by a single vote, prompting the mining company to walk away from the state.

"I think that what we learned in the last year and a half is that Wisconsin hasn't done mining in the last 20 years, and it behooves us to have an independent look at what other states have been doing," said Kennan Wood, executive director of the mining association.

Wood declined to say how much the group is being paid, but he said it's less than six figures.

The report will be completed in the next four months. The hope is that mining will be viewed more favorably - especially the estimated billions of dollars in iron ore deposits in northern Wisconsin.

The collapse of mining legislation prompted Gogebic Taconite, a Hurley-based unit of Florida-based Cline Group, to abandon plans to construct a massive open pit mine on a ridge spanning Ashland and Iron counties.

Gogebic has not been involved in recent mining talks, and an official with the company said last week it's been evaluating deposits in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and other locations.

Wood said the consultant will examine laws in Minnesota and Michigan, where mining companies have operated for generations. Minnesota and Michigan are seen as rivals if a company eventually receives a mining permit in Wisconsin.

The consultant's work, however, also will be plowing some familiar ground:

Last September, cabinet secretaries in the administration of Gov. Scott Walker flew to Minnesota to discuss regulation with Minnesota officials.

Legislative researchers examined Minnesota and Michigan laws as lawmakers and the Walker administration tried to advance a mining bill.

A Senate committee on mining, led by Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn), began background work on mining, but the panel was dismantled when Republican leaders decided to move faster.

The difference this time around?

"Before, it was completely political," Wood observed.

"One side said they didn't trust certain information because it was brought up by Democrats, and other side they didn't trust the information because it came from Republicans."

The goal is to attract a mining company and provide the regulatory tools to attract mining companies to tap known deposits.

Wood said Behre Dolbear "has relationships with academia and environmental organizations so they can take a broad brush view of everything going on around the globe."

Finding consensus

The chairman of the mining association is Tim Sullivan, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Bucyrus International, who was appointed by Walker in February as a special assistant for business and workforce development.

Sullivan is trying to find a consensus on mining, and has met with different parties, including former Department of Natural Resources Secretary George Meyer, who was involved in mining issues at the DNR.

Meyer said he and Sullivan agreed that a change to mining laws must have more environmental protections than the Republican approach this year. And another area of agreement is that Wisconsin must set clearer deadlines for regulators to review a mining permit, Meyer said.

A spokesman for Walker emphasized, however, that Sullivan is not the governor's point person on mining. "Mr. Sullivan is not doing any work for the governor as an adviser on mining," spokesman Cullen Werwie said.

Sullivan, through a spokesman at the Department of Administration, declined several requests to be interviewed for this story.

Meyer thinks the move by Sullivan and the mining association is a recognition that Republicans' approach to strip many environmental safeguards from legislation will not work.

"I think that we both expressed a willingness to see if there was a common ground to see if there are things that can be done to improve a mining bill," said Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

His group and other environmental organizations opposed the mining bill, which passed the Assembly but failed in the Senate.

Months later, however, the political climate hasn't changed, with little interest among legislators in taking up mining before the November elections.

Who will run the Senate for the rest of the year is unclear because of an ongoing recount in the recall election of Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine). In November, 16 of the 33 Senate seats are up, again putting control of the chamber in play.

If Republicans gain control next year, it may be by a narrow margin, which would keep mining a delicate issue because of objections to Walker's mining plans from Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center).

"I'm not sure the political environment is much different from February and March," Meyer said.

The Gogebic mine would have been located in the district of Sen. Robert Jauch (D-Poplar). He opposed Republican legislation and sought a middle ground with Schultz.

"I trust Tim," Jauch said, speaking of Sullivan.

"There is an attempt to have an honest dialogue with reasonable people to come up with a responsible public policy."

In the meantime, Bill Williams, president of Gogebic Taconite, said his company has been evaluating a site in Michigan and coal sites in southern Illinois and on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.

Is Wisconsin out of the picture?

"We would take the phone call, let's put it that way," Williams said.

Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.