Minnesota could help power energy transition

May 5, 2022

I’ve been told that John D. Rockefeller once said that the people of Minnesota’s Iron Range are “damn proud people because they made one heck of a contribution to the world.”

Rockefeller was referring to the area’s contribution to the war effort in the 1930s and 40s. If it hadn’t been for Minnesota’s Iron Range, Rockefeller said, “Germany would have ruled the world, because the steel that made all the tanks, all the aircraft carriers, all the battleships almost totally came from Minnesota’s Iron Range.”

Fast forward more than 75 years and a similar statement is being made by the current wealthiest man in the world, Elon Musk, chief executive officer and co-founder of Tesla Inc. Musk has also recognized the importance of Minnesota’s mineral deposits and in January 2022, he signed a deal with Talon Metals in which Talon Metals will supply Tesla with 75 kt (165 million lb) of nickel concentrate (and certain by-products, including cobalt and iron) from the Tamarack Nickel Project over an estimated six-year period once commercial production is achieved. The key word in this statement is ‘once.’

The truth of the matter is the world wants the benefits of zero-emission cars and low-cost, reliable renewable energy, but it’s not that simple. Millions of lithium-ion batteries to power a fleet of Teslas can’t be grown or produced with only recycled materials. Musk knows this, hence his agreement with Talon Metals for nickel concentrate ‘once’ it is produced.

So once again, Minnesota finds itself home to natural resources that the United States needs to compete on a global level. This time the state could be one of the primary sources of the critical minerals that are rising in demand to meet the needs of an industrial-revolution-scale transformation of the global energy sector. The United States’ need to be able to source materials at home or from its allies has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, tense trade relations and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In the critical minerals review (page 34) and the mining review (page 22), generously provided to Mining Engineering each year by Steven Fortier and his team at the United States Geological Survey, National Minerals Information Center we are reminded that the United States is a long way from being free of foreign sources for the minerals needed for this transition. Figure 4 on page 29 shows that the United States is 100 percent net import reliant on 17 nonfuel minerals, including manganese and graphite, and more than 75 percent net import reliant on 21 others, including rare earths (90) and cobalt and zinc (76).

The United States fares a bit better in nickel, but is still 48 percent dependent on foreign sources. The Tamarack project currently is the only high-grade development-stage nickel project in the United States. However, it is far from the only rich deposit of critical minerals in Minnesota.

From April 11-13, the 2022 SME Minnesota Conference took place in Virginia, MN, in the heart of the Mesabi Iron Range. Three days of technical programming focused largely on how the region will continue to supply materials in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way.

“The Iron Range plays an important role in the transition to renewable energy,” Corie Ekholm, chair of the SME Minnesota section told me. “All of the renewable energy sources require critical minerals that will hopefully be mined in Minnesota in the future. The transition also requires upgrades to infrastructure and renewable energy components that require steel.”

Those minerals are in the ground in Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States, but the key will be unlocking the ability to access them.
If the goals of the 2015 Paris Accord are to be reached it is going to take a lot more materials than what are currently being mined.
Minnesota could produce a lot of those materials from the Tamarack nickel-copper-cobalt project in central Minnesota, PolyMet’s NorthMet copper-nickel-cobalt project in the Mesabi Iron Range and the Twin Metals project in the Duluth Complex.

However, in the case of the Twin Metals project it could be years, if at all, after the company’s leases were pulled in January despite the fact that the company held those leases in good standing for more than 50 years and through 11 presidential administrations.

James Kochevar, vice president of iron ore operations, Cleveland Cliffs Inc. was the speaker during the plenary session. He spoke about how his company has adapted to environmental, social and governance demands to produce clean steel and reduce its carbon dioxide emissions.
Like many other companies, Cliffs has great intentions to reduce emissions and turn to clean power sources from Minnesota Power, but if the materials to power the change are not available, the transition will be slowed drastically.


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