Twin Metals mine cancellation is a gut punch to US steelworkers, gift to China

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Last week, the Biden administration effectively canceled two long-standing mineral leases at the Twin Metals mine located in northeastern Minnesota. This decision is not only a serious blow to the thousands of union workers who would have built and operated the mine but is also antithetical to the president’s stated climate and energy goals, which need a substantial, and stable, supply of minerals to operate. 

The Twin Metals mine is a state-of-the-art underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals (PGM) operation using some of the most advanced and precise methods of extraction. It is a part of the Duluth Complex in northern Minnesota that, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, contains the largest undeveloped deposits of nickel, cobalt and PGM in the world. 

These metals are necessary components to modern life and crucial to the expanded development of green energy technologies. The cobalt mined from Twin Metals could be used to build lithium-ion batteries, the nickel could be used in advanced battery storage technologies and the copper could be used in solar panels and wind turbines. Instead of being canceled, these jobs should be heralded as the green energy jobs the president often touts.

Instead, the Biden administration has prioritized the views of radical, anti-development NGOs that seem determined to shut-down all mining. The Twin Metals mine has had leasing rights for 56 years, spanning numerous Republican and Democratic administrations. This latest, extreme action is very short-sighted and runs afoul of our nation’s environmental laws, which are built on concepts of conservation, not outright prohibition.

U.S. environmental laws are the gold standard of modern development. That is why today, we mine, refine, transport and consume natural resources in an extremely efficient and environmentally sound manner. As the U.S. economy has experienced massive growth in recent decades, we have cut air pollution, cleaned up water quality and led the world in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Shutting down projects in the U.S. will not shutter demand. The World Bank estimates that the production of battery minerals, including graphite, nickel and cobalt, could increase by 500 percent by 2050 to meet the growing demand for advanced energy technologies. Some estimates suggest the world will need to produce the same amount of copper in the next 25 years as humanity has produced in the last 5,000 to reach electrification goals.

These minerals will be mined, but in places without strong adherence to environmental protections. In fact, canceling projects like the Twin Metals mine will be a boon to the foreign-sourced minerals market currently dominated by China. Beyond concern for negative environmental impacts, some reports have found that foreign sourced minerals are mined using child or forced labor. 

We are already in the midst of supply chain shortages for critical minerals. U.S. import reliance has doubled over the past two decades. With regard to the minerals buried in abundance at the Twin Metals mine, the U.S. is over 50 percent import reliant for nickel, 79 percent reliant for platinum, 76 percent reliant for cobalt, and nearly 40 percent reliant for copper.

Like many other U.S. industrial sectors, we have the potential to build out a modern mineral mining industry that aligns with today’s energy and economic goals and could be the envy of the world. Instead of leaning into this opportunity, the Biden administration continues to create barriers to the detriment of American workers and the global environment.

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives climate crisis committee hosted a hearing to examine “manufacturing a clean energy future” by assessing ways to expand domestic supply chains while creating “good-paying jobs” in America. For Democratic leaders, they are making this goal somewhat contingent on passage of the Build Back Better legislation. 

The reality is they don’t need an already doomed act of Congress to achieve these goals, many of which enjoy bipartisan support. A better approach would be for committee members to reach out to their counterparts in the White House and jump start a reconsideration of the Twin Metals mine decision. It is a shovel ready project that will support good-paying union jobs here in America and provide minerals necessary for climate technologies, all without negatively affecting the surrounding environment or local wildlife.

Mandy Gunasekara is the former chief of staff at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a visiting fellow at Independent Women’s Forum.

Tags Chemical elements China steel Copper Environment Protection Agency Environmental Issue Mining Physical sciences

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