Importance of mining remains strong in Minnesota

William Gleason

April 15, 2021

Northern Minnesota’s mining industry could be on the cusp of becoming one of the most important mining jurisdictions in the United States, much like it was when it produced the iron ore that helped the Allies prevail in World War II, but this time it will be because of critical minerals such as copper, nickel and platinum group metals.

As the world looks ahead to a decarbonized economy and an explosion in the production of electric vehicles — and an infrastructure powered by an increasing amount of renewable energy — copper, nickel, cobalt and other minerals will be needed. The Duluth Complex in Northern Minnesota is one of the largest undeveloped mineral deposits in the world with nearly 8 billion tons of copper, nickel and precious metals. It is estimated that the untapped Duluth Complex contains the world’s second-largest copper deposit (34 percent of the U.S. resource), the third-largest nickel deposit (95 percent of the U.S. resource) and second-largest platinum-group metals deposit (75 percent of the U.S. resource). According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. cobalt reserves sit at around 640 Kt (705,000 st) and just three of Minnesota's copper-nickel deposits, the Maturi, Mesaba and NorthMet, constitute 74 percent of this total. These resources are enough to provide copper for more than 70 million electric vehicles and enough nickel for 3.5 million battery packs.

“Mining is our past and our present and it is the path to a brighter future,” U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber (MN, 8th District) said in a presentation to the 2021 SME Minnesota Conference. Speaking virtually, Stauber, who is the ranking Republican on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, made the case that iron ore mining and the proposed mining of critical minerals in Duluth Complex is a matter of national security.

“COVID has shown us that we cannot depend on foreign and adversarial nations for critical minerals any longer,” Stauber said. “The Trump administration and now the Biden administration have talked about critical minerals being an emergency for our nation and the need to mine them in our nation in a safe and responsible manner following the best environmental and labor standards.”

Three companies have projects proposed for the Duluth Complex that aim to unlock the vast mineral potential of the area (PolyMet’s NorthMet copper, nickel and precious metals project in Hoyt Lakes; Twin Metals Minnesota’s copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals project in Ely; and Teck’s copper-nickel project near Babbitt), but all three have faced significant permitting and legal challenges.

PolyMet is the closest to production. John Cherry, president and chief executive officer of PolyMet, also spoke during the virtual presentation to the SME Minnesota Conference. He said PolyMet has received all needed permits for its NorthMet project; however, a host of lawsuits is preventing the company for beginning construction on the mine.

Cherry explained that in 2019 the final permits were issued, which was swiftly followed by about 20 lawsuits from opponents to the mine. Some of the lawsuits were combined down to 11 pieces of legislation, six of which PolyMet was won in court with five more case outstanding in state or federal courts. PolyMet has spent $426 million and 15 years in the permitting process.

PolyMet as well as Twin Metals Minnesota and Teck’s Mesaba project could receive help from a bill being introduced to the House by Stauber.

“I am going to introduce a bill called “Accessing America’s First Minerals Act” which means three things: more timeliness, transparency and reasonableness in our permitting,” said Stauber. “We have to push for the right reasons and at the right time and we are doing that.”

Cherry is also looking beyond the mining industry to gather support from the end users of critical minerals such as battery manufacturers to get the minerals to the manufacturers so they no longer have to rely on supply chains that begin outside of the United States.

“I think there is a great opportunity for the mining, battery and renewable-energy sectors to come together to form a large and important coalition to affect some change,” said Cherry.



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