The U.S. Department of the Interior is stonewalling a request for public records made through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with claims that the disclosure of documents related to a critical minerals project is irrelevant to agency decision-making.
In March, the Functional Government Initiative (FGI), a nonprofit transparency group based in Washington D.C., filed a FOIA request compelling the release of internal records related to the Interior Department’s lease cancellation for the Twin Metals project in Minnesota. The proposed nickel and cobalt mine in the Superior National Forest would be one of the largest in the nation, putting critical minerals on the market currently dominated by China. President Joe Biden’s Department of the Interior, however, blocked approval for the project in January despite the minerals’ importance in electric car batteries.
“You have asked us to waive the fees for processing your request,” wrote Department of the Interior Deputy FOIA Officer Leah Fairman in an April response reviewed by The Federalist, outlining the criteria for approval. Such a request must be “in the public interest because it is likely to contribute to public understanding of government operations or activities, and not primarily in your commercial interest.”
“Your request does not address these criteria and/or contain enough evidence to demonstrate you meet each of these criteria,” Fairman concluded, despite Biden’s pledges to make 50 percent of all auto sales electric by 2030.
Peter McGinnis, an FGI spokesman, called the decision “extremely concerning” in a press release last week.
“By seeking to impose fees for documents produced by public servants, on public time, and with public resources, the agency is throwing up unjustified barriers to the public learning which special interests stopped the domestic production of much-needed critical minerals,” McGinnis said. “In the meantime, China seems to be the primary beneficiary.”
McGinnis pledged the government transparency group would appeal the agency’s decision.
FGI demanded the agency disclose all records of communication between department employees and eight environmental nonprofits, six Democrat members of Congress, and any employees or representatives of the National Economic Council, the Council on Environmental Quality, or the law firm Lathan & Watkins. The request also demanded documents related to an October review of the project to initiate a 20-year ban on mineral extraction in the Superior National Forest.
While the department offered no hard estimate for the fees required, the agency charges 15 cents per document on top of a 15-minute rate based on the GS level of the federal employee conducting the review. Given the breadth of documents requested, McGinnis told The Federalist he expects the costs to go well into “thousands of dollars.”
The Department of the Interior did not respond to The Federalist’s request for comment.