The May 21 “Statewide View” column in the News Tribune, “A more sustainable future requires more Minnesota mining,” made the tired argument that in order to transition to a green economy, controversial copper-sulfide mines in Minnesota must open. This claim has gone unchecked for far too long.
Let’s look at this central point from the piece: “Our state holds world-class copper, nickel, cobalt, and platinum-group metals deposits necessary for expanding clean-energy technologies.”
But does the United States actually need more copper?
Even with steady population growth and a rise of renewable energy and the digital economy, copper consumption in the U.S. has steadily dropped 48% in the past two decades. In 2000, the U.S. consumed 3.1 million metric tons of copper. In 2020, that number was down to 1.6 million metric tons, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Further, the International Copper Study Group has predicted a global surplus of copper in 2021.
But even if there is no dire shortage of copper, in the United States or the world, Minnesota does have some nickel in its ore bodies, and nickel is critical for the green economy. This is true but hardly any nickel that is mined or produced would actually go to the batteries that would power the green economy. According to the Nickel Institute, only 5% of mined nickel goes to batteries. The overwhelming majority goes into making stainless steel.
The column attempted to pivot on the issue of “critical minerals” such as platinum, palladium, and cobalt. Let’s not be deceived. These minerals only exist in trace amounts in Northeastern Minnesota
For example, PolyMet estimates its ore body contains 76 parts per billion of platinum. This means it would take more than 13 million pounds of ore to process one pound of platinum.
Twin Metals’ ore body has a far higher grade of cobalt than PolyMet, yet only contains .011% of cobalt. An actual cobalt mine, such as the Jervois mine in Idaho, has a grade of 0.55% of cobalt — 50 times the concentration.
These two mines, PolyMet and Twin Metals, would hardly be a critical source of these metals.
The fact is, better recycling practices would provide the U.S. with far more copper, nickel, and cobalt than Twin Metals and PolyMet could provide. It would be cheaper, too. If the U.S. raised its rate of copper recycling from 33% to just 50%, we would produce more copper each year than would be extracted by nine Twin Metals or 15 PolyMet mines.
No copper-sulfide mine has ever operated in Minnesota. Every such mine that has ever opened polluted its surrounding water systems. In our case, that could mean permanently polluting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Lake Superior.
Let’s not be so naïve to think this is the only way to transition to a cleaner, greener economy. The facts tell otherwise.
Pete Marshall is the communications director of the St. Paul-based Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (friends-bwca.org).