On January 26th, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed a Public Land Order (PLO) that withdrew 225,504 acres of public lands located in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the federal mineral leasing program for 20 years. Her action was informed by the diligent scientific work of resource scientists and professional land managers in the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, that considered the environmental risks of sulfide-ore copper mining on land, water, and wildlife; the potential harm to Native American communities, treaty rights, and resources; and climate change implications resulting from the destruction of forest land and the vast consumption of energy by mining companies. Over the past five years, opportunities for public comment on proposed sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters have resulted in more than 675,000 comments supporting protections for the Boundary Waters Watershed.
Anti-Wilderness extremists are attempting to jeopardize the recent 20-year moratorium through critical mineral hyperbole.
Since it first proposed mining sulfide-ore metals next to the Boundary Waters, Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, owner of Twin Metals Minnesota, has sought to rationalize risky mining on the edge of the Wilderness. The truth is this: the only reason for mining this area is to create profit for a foreign mining company. Last year alone, Antofagasta spent $1,010,000 to lobby the U.S. government for its Twin Metals project near the Boundary Waters. More recently, Twin Metals engaged former MN Senator Tom Bakk as its lobbyist in Minnesota. Initially, Antofagasta claimed the region needed the jobs. But after peer-reviewed economic research from Harvard University  showed banning mining would result in more jobs and income in the region over a twenty-year period than a Twin Metals mine, Antofagasta and its supporters moved to their next rationale du jour – critical minerals.
The United States has long known the Boundary Waters is an irreplaceable national treasure, but since federal agencies' decision on January 26, 2023, anti-Wilderness extremists persist in pushing critical minerals fiction while touting legislation that would threaten the Boundary Waters. Minnesotans across the state are celebrating federal protections for the Boundary Waters watershed; nearly 70% support a permanent ban on sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters headwaters. Unfortunately, U.S. Representative Pete Stauber is not joining his constituents. In fact, he’s doing the opposite.
At two recent hearings in the House of Representatives, one in the Committee on Natural Resource and the second in the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, U.S. Representative Stauber made clear his intention to pave the way for damaging the Boundary Waters with untested toxic mining, no matter the cost, masked within the false pretense of critical minerals needed for a clean energy transition. He recently introduced a bill that is inherently anti-Wilderness and would weaken environmental reviews for mining.
Make no mistake, Rep. Stauber’s desire to “revisit” the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is meant to ignore the risks, facts, science, and laws; exclude the public from federal agency decision-making; and railroad risky mining projects. We’ve seen these ideas before. In 2020, the Trump administration introduced dangerous rollbacks which sidelined the public, exempted many projects from environmental review, and allowed corporate polluters to cut corners at the expense of the health and safety of American families. NEPA is a bedrock environmental law. Changes to NEPA should remain protective of the Wilderness.
Additionally, several weeks ago, a group of Minnesota House and Senate Republicans held a news conference before Vice President Kamala Harris’ arrival to St. Cloud to criticize the Administration’s energy and mining policies - including the mining moratorium near the Boundary Waters.
And in the same week, Rio Tinto’s CEO met with Sen. Mitt Romney to discuss designating copper as a critical mineral - which is head-scratching as the U.S. is a famously large copper producer and faces no supply risk.
Last, U.S. Senator Cramer from North Dakota used the Chinese balloon event to call for more domestic mining, even including the former toxic Twin Metals mining project.
Polling shows that Minnesotans overwhelmingly support protection for the Boundary Waters watershed and reject the false choice between "critical" minerals and protecting America's most visited Wilderness.
“Minnesotans understand mining and are, in general, not anti-mining. They also understand the role of certain metals, such as cobalt and nickel, in national security and for a clean energy transition. However, Minnesotans reject as a false choice the claim that sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed is needed or even relevant. Minnesotans overwhelmingly oppose sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters, where it would pose a danger to the Boundary Waters. Opposition to sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed cuts across demographic, geographic, and ideological lines, making protection of the watershed a clear winner in Minnesota.” - John Anzalone, IMPACT Research
We don't have to choose between clean energy and protecting the Boundary Waters. The recent Public Land Order balances the extremely limited mineral resources that could be extracted in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters against the value of what would be lost.
Sulfide-ore mining in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters would sacrifice the Boundary Waters while producing an insignificant amount of metals compared to U.S. demand. We can (and do) work with allies like Canada, Norway, and Australia to secure the critical metals we need and continue to increase recycling minerals in our own country.
In addition, minerals from a Twin Metals mine would be irrelevant in any case because Twin Metals proposed sending its concentrates out of the country, likely to China, for smelting.
The best, least expensive, and safest solution for securing battery minerals needed for America’s clean energy transition is to continue and strengthen our cooperation with longtime allies and trusted trading partners. Despite wild claims from Antofagasta and its allies, exploiting the headwaters of the Boundary Waters could never replace the metals we already receive from trusted trading partners like Canada, Norway, Finland, and Australia.
The minerals produced in the watershed of the Boundary Waters are both insignificant and irrelevant to America’s security and clean energy transition. These minerals are important to everyday life and transitioning to a clean energy economy. However, the idea that Americans have to sacrifice the Boundary Waters is a false choice that anti-Wilderness proponents use to push their agenda. Despite fear-mongering by Twin Metals boosters, Russia is not a major supplier of minerals to the U.S. In fact, the United States can and does secure its supply chain of critical minerals by importing them from a reliable and diverse set of trading partners, many of them long-time allies.
We can also do better to recycle minerals in our own country. In fact, the United States could dramatically reduce demand for minerals by investing in a circular economy – including recycling, reuse, manufacturing improvements and substitution that would create jobs domestically while not putting places such as the Boundary Waters at risk of toxic mining.
"Eighty-eight percent of a grain of sand is still less than a grain of sand." Minerals from a Twin Metals mine are insignificant to United States demand. Twin Metals’ website and lobbying materials misleadingly suggest that minerals from its operations would supply a significant amount of U.S. or even global demand. For example, the website states that “we have what the country needs,” followed by graphics showing 34% of U.S. copper reserves, 95% of U.S. nickel reserves, and 88% of U.S. cobalt reserves. These numbers, intentionally or not, deceive even as Twin Metals seeks to impress.
The Twin Metals mine would have involved only a fraction of a fraction of the Duluth Complex. The figures promoted on the Twin Metals website conflate the four deposits Twin Metals seeks to develop with the much larger Duluth Complex, which contains roughly 18 identified deposits, most of which Twin Metals has no claim to and/or are not in the Rainy River-Headwaters. Of those four deposits, the Twin Metals mine plan proposed mining only 6.5% of the ore altogether. The actual production of a Twin Metals mine would be a drop in the bucket relative to United States mineral demand. For purposes of the Superior National Forest Mineral Withdrawal analysis, the amount of metal that could theoretically be mined in the proposed Superior National Forest Withdrawal Area is significantly smaller than Twin Metals’ numbers suggest.
Twin Metals focuses on percentages of U.S. reserves, but U.S. reserves are small in comparison with U.S. consumption. U.S. reserves are also small in comparison with the reserves of our allies and close trading partners. For example, the U.S. hosts 0.7% of world cobalt reserves, while in pre-Covid 2019 claimed 8.7% of world consumption. Similarly, the U.S. hosts 1.3% of the world’s PGM (platinum + palladium) reserves, while in 2019 claimed 32.2% of world consumption. And finally, the U.S. hosts just one-tenth of one percent (0.1%) of world nickel reserves, while in 2019 claimed 8.3% of world consumption.
These details are important because without knowing the basis for a percentage, that percentage can look misleadingly impressive. Looking at the specific minerals a Twin Metals mine could produce:
- Copper. Copper is abundant throughout the world. The United States and world resources are plentiful and growing. The United States is among the top five copper producers in the world. The U.S. Geological Survey Materials Flow Analysis section assesses a low disruption potential for copper in the U.S. economy. For the foreseeable future, foreign mining companies would continue to ship metal concentrates to low cost smelters in Asia, after which metals are sold on the world market. Antofagasta’s plan for a Twin Metals mine calls for transporting metal concentrates to a port facility for shipping outside the United States. Antofagasta sends its copper-nickel concentrates from its mines in South America to China for smelting and refining.
- Nickel. The United States does not have a significant amount of nickel. Its close trading partner, Canada, is a leading supplier of nickel (and other critical minerals) to the United States. Canada has more than 28 times the nickel reserves as the United States and on average its deposits are of double or higher grade than those in the United States. Canada is also eager to supply more metals to the United States. Other major trading partners for nickel include the countries of Norway, Finland, and Australia, all of which are on the Department of Defense’s Security of Supply countries.
- Cobalt. A Twin Metals mine would produce a very small quantity of cobalt. Cobalt would be a by-product from smelting and refining nickel concentrates, which would be done in China. Cobalt grades in Twin Metals deposits are among the lowest of all deposits in the world and production, even if not sent abroad, would be insufficient to dent U.S. demand. At most, a Twin Metals mine might meet 1.5% of the U.S. annual demand for cobalt (based on 2019 annual consumption). As U.S. consumption rises, this percentage would decline. By contrast, the United States currently imports 57% of its cobalt needs from Canada, Norway, Japan and Finland, all close U.S. allies and trading partners. Australia alone has 83 deposits containing cobalt, 55 of which are of double or higher grade than the Duluth Complex deposits in the Boundary Waters watershed. For example, one of those Australian deposits alone, if mined, has enough contained cobalt to supply the United States at current demand, for more than 270 years. Another Australian deposit, the currently operating Murrin-Murrin mine, has grades five times better than the best a Twin Metals mine could offer  and contains 198,000 tons of cobalt, more than 42 times what a Twin Metals mine could produce. With a Twin Metals mine, the United States would sacrifice the Boundary Waters and still need to import more than 98% of its cobalt.
The Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park are uniquely vulnerable and irreplaceable. The waters of the Boundary Waters, the surrounding Superior National Forest, and Voyageurs National Park are vastly interconnected – lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, and groundwater – and the extensive interconnectedness is poorly understood, meaning that water pollution could travel undetected for years or decades or centuries, and the route by which pollution moves – particularly through fractured bedrock – may not be decipherable. The water chemistry of the Boundary Waters, the surrounding Superior National Forest, and Voyageurs is poorly-buffered, i.e., low in alkaline or base compounds, meaning that newly introduced acid mine drainage would cause the pH of the waters to become acidic; alkalinity is necessary to counteract acidity.
Mine drainage, whether acidic or not, and deposition of air pollution from mines in the watershed would cause mercury contamination in fish and all who eat fish, both downstream and downwind. Acid mine drainage would cause the loss of aquatic life. Because the degraded waters would be in a vast lakeland national wilderness area, the damage could never be remediated, mitigated, or fixed.
- The EPA has determined that the Duluth Complex, which underlies the watershed of the Boundary Waters, is acid-generating. It also contains very low-grade ore. Waste from mines in the Duluth Complex will be vast – roughly 99% of the ore body. Mine waste would be a source of water degradation for hundreds of years. Leachate from mines in the Boundary Waters watershed would include sulfates and heavy metals such as arsenic, copper, zinc, and other toxic metals.
A 2017 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency describes the waters within the mineral withdrawal area as “immaculate." The Report concludes that "the majority of the waterbodies within this watershed had exceptional biological, chemical, and physical characteristics that are worthy of additional protection." The Boundary Waters is our nation’s premier lakeland National Wilderness Area and the most visited of all such areas. A defining characteristic is water: twenty-four percent of the Boundary Waters is water.
The recent decision to keep the headwaters of the Boundary Waters off-limits to mining is just one example of the balanced policy that the Biden administration has taken when it comes to critical minerals: to strongly support domestic production while providing that special places, such as the Boundary Waters, remain off-limits to mining and protected from mining impacts. We’re one step closer to preserving this important wilderness permanently – let’s keep our precious waters intact.
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