Will Biden’s Mining Ban in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Hurt the Clean Energy Transition?

The 20-year moratorium aims to protect 350 square miles of pristine watershed, but likely dooms a proposed mine that would produce key metals for batteries and solar panels.

Outdoor enthusiasts travel by canoe through several of the hundreds of fresh water lakes that make up the Boundary Waters in September of 2019 in the northern woods of Minnesota. Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Outdoor enthusiasts travel by canoe through several of the hundreds of fresh water lakes that make up the Boundary Waters in September of 2019 in the northern woods of Minnesota. Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

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The Biden administration says it will prohibit new mining activity for 20 years across a vast swath of federal land in northern Minnesota known for its natural beauty and pristine habitat. Environmentalists celebrated the decision, calling it a win for the environment, tribal rights and the region’s $540 million outdoor tourism industry.

The moratorium will cover roughly 350 square miles of watershed in the Superior National Forest, which sits upstream from Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and includes grounds where Chippewa tribes hunt and fish. But it is likely to also doom a $1.7 billion proposal to mine copper and nickel in the area, increasing pressure on the administration as it scrambles to find domestic sources of the minerals to meet skyrocketing demand for clean energy components.

Copper is a key ingredient in solar panels, wind turbines, as well as the transmission lines required to carry carbon-free electricity to homes and businesses. And both copper and nickel are necessary to produce the kind of long-term batteries needed to store electricity generated by solar and wind farms or power electric vehicles.

“This region sits on top of one of the world’s largest deposits of critical minerals that are vital in meeting our nation’s goals to transition to a clean energy future, to create American jobs, to strengthen our national security and to bolster domestic supply chains,” Twin Metals Minnesota, the company proposing the copper-nickel mine in the town of Ely, said in a statement Thursday. “We believe our project plays a critical role in addressing all of these priorities.”

Demand for those metals, along with other essential minerals like lithium and cobalt, could increase sixfold by 2040, according to projections from the International Energy Agency. As a result, costs for those materials are already surging, the global agency reported last year, with prices of lithium and cobalt more than doubling in 2021, and those for copper, nickel and aluminum rising between 25-40 percent.

Still, many supporters of the Minnesota mining ban, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, said the risks the Twin Metals mine posed to the region’s lakes and woods outweighed any potential gains from it. A federal environmental review determined the mining operation could cause irreparable harm to nearby watersheds, including the state’s Boundary Waters, a popular destination for camping and canoeing.

“Today’s science-based decision is a massive win for Boundary Waters protection,” Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement. “The Boundary Waters is a paradise of woods and water. It is an ecological marvel, a world-class outdoor destination, and an economic engine for hundreds of businesses and many thousands of people.”

Nevertheless, without the Twin Metals mine, which would have produced about 180 million tons of ore over 25 years, the Biden administration must now find those materials elsewhere—and fast. It’s a situation that highlights the complex challenges President Joe Biden faces as he struggles to uphold his climate agenda, establish U.S. dominance in the global energy market and navigate an increasingly dicey political situation abroad and at home ahead of next year’s sure-to-be contentious presidential election.

Both the Covid pandemic and the Russian war in Ukraine have strained Biden’s ability to meet his climate pledges, including keeping the U.S. on track to slash nationwide carbon emissions in half in just seven years. And the U.S. continues to lag behind countries like China on the global clean energy market—a key reason Biden invoked the Defense Production Act last year to boost domestic production of clean energy materials, including copper, nickel and lithium. Just one U.S. lithium mine, in Nevada, is currently operating.

In fact, demand for lithium by 2050 in the U.S. alone could require three times more than what is currently being produced worldwide, according to a new study released this week. If accurate, that trend could spur a frenzy in domestic mining activity in the coming years, the researchers said, resulting in possible water shortages, seizure of Indigenous lands and ecological destruction.

In other words, Biden’s mining ban may protect the environment and uphold tribal rights in northern Minnesota, but the issue is bound to crop up elsewhere over the coming decades.

The study’s authors, however, said their research suggests there are viable solutions. If the U.S. invests more in public transit and battery recycling programs, the study found, it could slash the amount of extra lithium required through 2050 by more than 90 percent by reducing the need for virgin materials and by helping to make Americans less reliant on cars.

“Preserving the status quo might seem like the politically easier option, but it’s not the fastest way to get people out of cars or the fairest way to decarbonize,” Thea Riofrancos, the study’s lead author, told the Guardian. “We can either electrify the status quo to reach zero emissions, or the energy transition can be used as an opportunity to rethink our cities and the transportation sector so that it’s more environmentally and socially just, both in the U.S. and globally.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday—but before you go:

Hot Gossip

America’s culture war somehow became more bizarre this week. To conserve electricity and cut carbon emissions, Microsoft announced earlier this month that it would update older Xbox models to automatically go into a power-saving mode while idle—something newer models of the game console already do.

But Republican lawmakers and right-wing media pundits were outraged by the announcement, The Washington Post reported this week, saying the left was now targeting their kids with their “woke” climate agenda. “First gas stoves, then your coffee, now they’re gunning for your Xbox,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz quipped on Twitter this week.

Today’s Indicator

$1.1 trillion

That’s how much money was invested in efforts to decarbonize the energy sector last year, u003ca href=u0022https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-01-26/clean-energy-fossil-fuel-investment-tied-for-first-time-in-2022?srnd=greenu0022u003eaccording to a new BloombergNEF reportu003c/au003e, marking an all-time high in global clean energy funding and the first year spending on renewables matched that of fossil fuels.

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