On one hand the fight over the proposed Twin Metals mine outside Ely, Minn., is a classic “Not in My Back Yard” fight. Opponents condemn the severe environmental risks posed to the federally protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness; supporters tout the hundreds of high-paying jobs the mine would create, and billions of dollars in investment it would bring to the region.
But more recently, backers of the proposed project have pushed a more global argument — that the minerals the mine would extract are essential to confront climate change.
"The World Bank has said we're going to need as much copper in the next 25 years as we've mined in the last 5,000,” said Julie Padilla, chief regulatory officer for Twin Metals. “And every year, we can produce enough nickel for 280,000 electric vehicles from this project."
The World Bank report Padilla cited estimates the world will need to increase production of minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt by nearly 500 percent by 2050 to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies. These include solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicle batteries that experts agree will need to be deployed in huge numbers to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
"The renewable energy transition is not going to happen without the mining industry. That's just a fact,” said Jordy Lee, who manages the Supply Chain Transparency Initiative at the Colorado School of Mines.
But that critical need for minerals is bumping up against another reality: Many mining projects proposed in the U.S. face fierce local opposition.
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Nowhere is that more evident than in far northeastern Minnesota, where last week the Biden administration canceled two federal mineral leases held by Twin Metals right on the edge of the Boundary Waters.
The decision was a major victory for the environmental groups and area businesses fighting to protect the wilderness. But it also underscores how difficult it could be to build up a domestic supply of the minerals needed to transition to a green economy.
Predictions of impending critical mineral shortages have spurred a new focus on developing a domestic supply chain for those minerals. Some automakers are even investing in mines.
Tesla, for example, recently inked a supply deal with Talon Metals, a proposed nickel mine in the tiny town of Tamarack, about an hour west of Duluth.
Talon is part of a broader group of miners and other companies called the Battery Materials and Technology Coalition that’s pushing for the creation of a domestic supply chain for batteries — from mining to mineral processing to manufacturing.
Right now much of that supply chain is controlled by China, said coalition spokesperson Ben Steinberg. “We can't be beholden to one country. And so if that were to at any point be cut off, the U.S. would be in a lot of trouble.”
The minerals currently used to make batteries, including nickel, cobalt and lithium, are mined all around the world. Many of them are processed in China. Then they’re shipped around the globe. That costs a lot of money, Steinberg says, and generates a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions.
“And it is kind of interesting that you have the environmental community saying, ‘don't dig up this stuff,’ yet you have to dig up the stuff to get your Tesla. So there is this paradox,” Steinberg said.
Mining, historically, has often left polluted water and scarred landscape in its wake. That’s why Lee with the Colorado School of Mines said decades ago the U.S. largely decided to outsource mining to other parts of the world.
Now that there’s a renewed emphasis on trying to develop these local mineral supply chains, Lee said the U.S. still really hasn’t dealt with that environmental legacy.
That’s why mines he said often run up against fierce opposition, like what's playing out in Minnesota's canoe country. Elsewhere, for example, locals are pushing back against proposed lithium mines in North Carolina and Nevada.
"And in the U.S., it takes 20 years to open a mine, as you've seen with a lot of these protests,” Lee said. “So it's definitely make or break time with a lot of these mineral projects, because we're running out of time."
Is a local mine really the answer?
In northern Minnesota, groups fighting the proposed Twin Metals project have expressed skepticism over just how much the project would contribute to a clean energy supply chain.
“A Twin Metals mine would be insignificant and irrelevant when it comes to critical minerals for a green economy,” says Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
Rom argues the metal concentrates that Twin Metals produces would get shipped abroad for processing — likely to China — and then sold on the world market. She contends a better strategy would be to source the nation’s minerals from allies like Australia and Canada with far-greater mineral reserves.
“So the United States must depend on its longtime friendly allies for its secure supply chain,” Rom said.
Padilla, Twin Metals’ chief regulatory officer, acknowledged there are no nickel smelters in the U.S. and limited copper processing capacity. She said the company has identified possible processing capacity in Mexico and Canada, but said it's too early to say where it would occur.
“The opponents are raising a significant policy question we have to ask ourselves because we don't process enough minerals here locally,” Padilla said. “So let's add to that capacity. And let's mine locally.”
Padilla accused the Biden administration of “talking out of both sides of its mouth,” saying it wants to build domestic nickel refining, but canceling leases for a mine that would produce nickel. She said mining projects across the country face similar hurdles.
“We’re really saying we aren't going to be responsible for ourselves,” Padilla said. “And we are going to hope that those allied nations will continue to supply us with what we need, even in the face of their own needs. And that's the challenge.”
Environmental groups argue they're not against all mines. But they also argue some places, including within the watershed of the Boundary Waters, are too special to mine.
The national group EarthJustice, which has represented groups fighting Twin Metals, argues an increased emphasis on recycling, along with stricter standards on imported minerals, would both provide the minerals needed to fight climate change and protect places where mining is too risky.
"There's not a need to choose between moving towards clean energy and decarbonization as rapidly as possible, and protecting these special places in our lands and waters," said Blaine Miller-McFeeley, a senior legislative representative based in the Twin Cities.
Meanwhile, Twin Metals says it's looking at all its options in the wake of the Biden administration’s recent move.
“We're digging into the legal analysis provided by the Department of Interior last week,” said Padilla. “We will, in the near term, be able to discuss more broadly how we plan to approach continuing to fight for this valuable resource.”