Recent rulings contradict stated mineral goals
In the spring of 2022 the Biden administration made a somewhat remarkable step of invoking Cold War era laws to boost production of a host of critical minerals that are needed for batteries for electric vehicles and other technologies that the administration viewed as being crucial to both a clean energy evolution as well as mineral independence.
At the time, it seemed as if the use of the 1950 Defense Production Act might be a catalyst for a mining boom in the United States. It directed the Defense Department to consider at least five metals as essential to national security and authorized steps to bolster domestic supplies.
Domestic mining of such minerals could be a win on so many levels, it seemed. It could decrease the United States’ dependence on foreign sources for important minerals. It could create high-paying jobs in states such as Minnesota, Alaska and Arizona where there are known deposits of copper, gold, nickel, cobalt, molybdenum … many of the minerals the U.S. Geological Survey has included on its list of critical minerals. And, the mines would be put into production under the highest environmental and safety regulations in the world thus reducing minerals imported from unregulated regions where environmental and human-rights violations can often go unchecked. Seems like victories all around, right?
On Jan 26, 2023 the Biden administration made the head-scratching announcement that it would withdraw more than 225,000 acres of land in northeast Minnesota from mineral development, including where Twin Metals had planned to develop its underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum-group-metals mine.
To remove the region from mining contradicts the stated goals of the administration. It is confusing and frustrating to see known deposits basically pulled off the table.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said that the decision was made to protect the environment near the mine. “With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best available science and extensive public input,” she said.
The day of the announcement, I spoke with Julie Lucas, executive director of MiningMinnesota. Lucas, a strong advocate for responsible mining, doesn’t agree with the best-science part. She told me, “The basis of this important decision is not based on sound science or careful study; instead, it is the result of political decisions informed by poorly constructed hypothetical scenarios. The same level of scientific scrutiny that industry is commonly held to does not apply to the federal government and that could not be more apparent than in the environmental assessment the Department of Interior is using to support this decision.”
Rich Nolan, president and chief executive officer of the National Mining Association also had trouble making sense of the decision. In a statement, he said, “It’s difficult to square the announcement of this significant land withdrawal with the Biden administration’s stated goals on electrification, the energy transition and supply-chain security. At a time when demand for minerals such as copper, nickel and cobalt are skyrocketing for use in electric vehicles and solar and wind infrastructure, the administration is withdrawing hundreds of thousands of acres of land that could provide U.S. manufacturers with plentiful sources of these same minerals. In the end, by closing off more and more U.S. land to responsible domestic mining instead of producing minerals here at home, creating high-paying American jobs and mining operations that will be conducted in accordance with the world’s most stringent environmental, labor and safety regulations, the administration is looking to stand up operations in the Congo and Zambia. It’s nonsensical when you look at where the U.S. wants to be globally as a leader in manufacturing, innovation and climate.”
A week after that decision, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency potentially locked more minerals in the ground when it issued a final determination under the Clean Water Act that bans the disposal of mine waste in part of the Bristol Bay’s watershed in Alaska, dealing another serious blow to the proposed Pebble Mine.
“This preemptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically or environmentally,” said John Shively, chief executive of Pebble LP, a unit of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which has been working to develop the massive copper and gold mine in Alaska.
If it can’t be grown, it has to be mined. The green energy future can’t be grown, and if deposits are not permitted it wont’t be mined either. n