Some questions matter more in mining debate

Drilling for core samples is the primary objective of mining exploration. Here, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operator drills for samples near a dam in Nashville, Tenn. (PHOTO: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Flickr CC)

I follow sports. I like to watch baseball and football in particular. Some of my friends are far more into sports than I am. Others don’t care about sports at all.

For the first group, I sometimes fall disappointingly short in conversation. I just can’t recall the same statistics and analysis to explain why the Thumpers beat the Meatheads. For the latter group, the entire topic is a waste of time. How’s the weather?

The point is that you have to decide how much you really want to engage with this stuff. At some point, you might find that you’re focusing too much on details that matter less.

I think we’ve safely reached this same point in the debate over nonferrous mining in Northern Minnesota. It’s certainly a more important topic than sports. After all, economics and environmental policy carry real world implications for people living in our region both now and in the future.

But the debate has become, for many, a sort of sport, complete with “teams” and the psychological effects of victory and defeat.

Case in point, the recent announcement that the Trump Administration would repeal Obama-era restrictions on mining in certain areas near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Two Fridays ago this was a breaking news alert for the local papers and TV stations. Last Monday it was front page news in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The headline blared: “Defeat for Minnesota Wilderness means back to business for mining.”

Back to business? These aren’t even mines yet. Companies have been exploring Northeastern Minnesota for years. They are now free to explore some more. But the inference is that nonferrous mines will open soon. Open the bids. Update your resume.

That’s just not what’s really happening. The projects discussed near the BWCA aren’t even in the permitting process yet.

Now, you might recall that former President Obama’s administration set this restriction in place back in late 2016. At the time, environmental groups cheered the results while mining advocates grumbled. “That’s just politics,” they said. “Those new rules wouldn’t last long.”

Indeed, there was no doubt President Trump would reverse the ban on mining near the Boundary Waters, it was just a matter of when. I half expected it to happen immediately.

But wait. Eight weeks before an election in a district that might represent the GOP’s best pickup opportunity in the country? That timing makes sense to me.

I don’t know that the Trump White House could have done this at a more politically advantageous time for their candidate Pete Stauber. That is, if you assume that converting pro-mining votes on the Iron Range from DFL to GOP is the best way for Stauber to win. The news comes early enough to establish a political message, but late enough to impact last-minute voters just two weeks before early voting begins.

But when you dive beneath the surface of the news, you don’t see much in motion. Companies like Twin Metals are free to explore the area in question again. This area isn’t in the BWCA but borders it and shares a watershed. The exploration itself poses no serious environmental risk. The mine in question still exists only as a drawing on a piece of paper.

You’ve to read all the way through Josephine Marcotty’s story in the Star Tribune to get these last three graphs:

PolyMet [near Hoyt Lakes, not affected by the original ban] is the only company in the state to ask for a copper-nickel mining permit — a process that has taken 10 years and still isn’t over. It’s waiting for a decision by the state on its permit.

For now, [Minnesota Mining executive director Frank] Ongaro said, the most significant consequence is that the chilling effect the ban had on the industry is gone. As a result, new companies from around the globe might start looking around, and the ones already in the state will poke more holes in the ground.

“At least,” he said. “I hope so.”

You follow most of this stuff to its roots and you find a guy at a desk who says, “We hope so.”

Here are the real factors involved in the whether or not nonferrous mining happens in Minnesota.


It exists. Prospectors have known about copper, nickel and other low density veins of nonferrous minerals in Northeastern Minnesota for at least 100 years.


Also exists, but at much lower prices than what any of Minnesota’s proposed mines say they can deliver at this time. Copper is closely tied to economic indicators, among the most fickle of minerals on the market.


It is becoming possible to mine new minerals in Northeastern Minnesota with an acceptable amount of environmental risk (though what that means is debatable). That said, the history is bad and the most affordable new technology remains in the experimental phase.


Who’s got a billion bucks? Who’s going to plunk it on the table in Northeastern Minnesota? Will they keep or even try to keep the environmental and workforce promises of all the developers?


Does the state and/or federal government have the political will to maintain a consistent, scientifically backed, rigorous set of environmental regulations to avoid future disasters?

The answers to such questions are knowable, but require difficult consideration and objective decision-making. (Meaning your “side” might not like some of the answers). Fundamentally, these projects will happen or they won’t. The reasons why will only slightly comport with politics. The klieg lights of another election cycle and an unfolding political realignment in Northern Minnesota again place undue emphasis on a reality that can’t simply be pounded into submission.

It’s more important that the the governor’s Wild Rice Sulfate Standard Task Force appointed last week come up with a broadly acceptable solution to that particular sticking point. It’s more important that the American steel industry and our local mining industry add value to their products. And it’s vitally important that we diversify Northern Minnesota’s economy.

The rest is noise.


  1. Excellent article.

    The only thing I would add, under “Accountability,” is whether the state has the will to insist on adequately funded guarantees against the costs of both catastrophic and slow-motion major contamination, protecting the taxpayers from being stuck with the bill.

  2. More bad news for non-ferrous mining as the new quarterly results for copper prices show the 3rd quarter to be down by over 5%, despite a 5% recovery in September. That brings the year to a price decline of over 15% for copper. Although good performance in the world and US economy would usually mean higher demand and higher prices for copper, a couple of trends seem to be continuing downward pressure on prices. The first is the increased longevity of many products, from autos and cell phones to home electronics and computers. Longer product life means fewer purchases and less demand for copper components. The second is that during the last peak in price, the wily engineers working for large corporations went to work on reducing the amount of copper needed in each product, also driving down demand and price.

    As Aaron notes above, the current world commodity price for copper is lower than the cost of production in any new Northeastern MN plants. As an acquaintance of mine who is a mining engineer says, that means that if Polymet and Twin Metals were open, they would be closed.

    Unless there is a vigorous rise in prices, in order to produce copper, nickel, and other metals at prices that are financially viable, the companies are going to have to make some changes. Look for reducing labor costs by increasing automation and technology in order to reduce the workforce and by using non-union contracts with pay levels substantially lower than the current standard in the iron mining workforce. Also look for strong pushes to reduce the cost of operation by seeking to be allowed to pollute more and clean up less. The efforts to eliminate or markedly increase the limits for sulfate pollution that we have seen in the last two years in the state legislature are just one example of that, but there will be more.

    Copper and nickel production in the Northland is currently not viable, given costs of production and world prices. The companies have the choice of either waiting to move forward in incurring the large costs of bringing mines and processing plants into production until there is increased demand and prices, or moving forward and then closing the plants to await better prices, assuming that they cannot cut labor and environmental compliance costs enough to make the needed difference. Twin Metals and Antofagasta have more or less announced that they have selected the first option, opting to just accumulate leases and data rather than move forward toward production. Glencore and Polymet seem to be selecting the second choice, although if they get the needed permits to move forward, we will have to see if they are willing to spend the hundreds of millions and billions needed to actually bring the plants in, given that prices and demand do not support operation now.

  3. Nonferrous metallic mineral exploration has its own impacts. The state has 533 active nonferrous metallic mineral leases and more are proposed for northeastern Itasca County and St. Louis County. Add to that whatever private leases there are. It is deeply disturbing to see gold exploration leases being proposed immediately adjacent to our state forest lakes in northeast Itasca county. They have state forest campgrounds and many other recreational features. Cabins and homes on the lakes, animal habitats and water quality could well see drastic changes. The future of these places to hunt and fish, to enjoy nature, to find peace and nurture now are in question. Whenever the State Executive Council says yes to 50 year exploration leases on state land, it is a door opener to mining interests and multi-generational worries of adjacent landowners about where this will lead. The questions of process and accountability are immense to those of us impacted if mining goes forward near us.

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