Orr “Mines” the Theater of Public Policy for Laughs

Last night, Policy Fellow Isaac Orr appeared at the Theater of Public Policy held at Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis.

The Theater, run by Tane Danger, has a policy purpose and fun format; it take on issues of public policy, invites opposing experts to discuss the topic and then “improv” actors have some fun with what they learned about the issue. Think Dudley Riggs doing public policy.

The issue last night was mining in northern Minnesota, specifically the PolyMet copper nickel mine now under consideration. Isaac Orr, who co-authored the Center’s report “Unearthing Prosperity: How Environmentally Responsible Mining Will Boost Minnesota’s Economy” did a great job.

Isaac used to do stand-up comedy, and I think a little improv, so he was very comfortable on the stage. He knows the mining issue and he is wicked smart.  I learned a lot sitting there. I have to admit I have not carefully read our mining report; we publish more than I can read.

For example, did you know that Minnesota’s unique geology makes the state a treasure trove of the minerals needed, for example, to power cell phones and tablets? The deposits are massive. Also, the PolyMet site is NOT near the BWCA; it is near the St. Louis River that flows into Lake Superior.  Furthermore, no mines permitted since 1990 have had problems (e.g. Superfund). In other words, the country has learned from past sloppiness and mistakes.

Isaac debated Kevin Lee, an attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and an adjunct professor the UofM law school. I think he brought like 20 people to cheer him on (I was there for Isaac) but he was a very fair and intelligent opponent.  He did not say we should not mine; he and Isaac explored ideas for making the process safer. One woman from the audience commented on how nice it was to have a smart, civil conversation.

The upshot was this: at some point if you front load all the costs of making absolutely sure that the mine will never pollute, then the mine will probably never open, or if it does open, the margins will be so tight that you are inviting financial disaster, and increasing the risk that the state would have to take over a closed mine. You can read the Center’s mining report here. 

I could not help thinking that my Norwegian great-grandparents, Karen and Lars, never would have come to America to settle in Duluth without mining. They were not miners but they had good jobs and a life because of the wealth created by mining. One of their sons became a doctor and cared for the mining community; there is a hospital and foundation named after him today.

Have we really reached the point where we are not able to take intelligent, calculated risks to grow our economy? I hope not; and the Center’s report and support of mining is resonating with people in northern Minnesota.

Peter Nelson and I have both braved the South Minneapolis crowds (I debated Dane Smith on government spending; Peter was there, I think, on Obamacare). I always have to talk my colleagues into doing this because you worry about being set up and abused as the maligned conservative. But in reality, it is a great opportunity for South Minneapolitans to meet us and hear “our side.” Tane Danger does his homework: he knows the issue and fairly leads the discussion in a way that is funny and informative.

So Tane, thanks for having us. We will be back!