From iron to steel without emissions

PHOTO: Ben Cooper, Flickr CC-BY
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

Let’s start with the bad news.

Climate change is actively reshaping the whole world; adding billions in property damage, rising insurance premiums, and increased human migration. Among the side effects: economic inequality, declining air quality, natural disasters, and yes, even pandemics. We may come to regard our current struggles with COVID-19 as a normal part of life in the 21st Century.

Some of us will adapt. From a climate standpoint, northern Minnesota is uniquely positioned to endure what’s coming. That is, if we figure out how to defend our own interests above those of big corporations. But will the United States actually do anything to mitigate the most fundamental problem on Earth?

The scientific consensus on the dire nature of climate change is not only robust, but near total. And yet, the U.S. remains the only developed country on Earth in which a significant number of people and an entire major political party, the Republican Party, deny the threat of climate change. As in, it’s all fake. That’s remarkable.

Conservative parties across the world acknowledge climate change. That’s true of Tories in the United Kingdom and Canada. Same for Germany’s Christian Democrats. Even authoritarian parties like Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and China’s Communist Party acknowledge climate change, though they’ve been slower to act.

Moreover, American private industry knows that climate change is real. Even the oil companies are actively planning for it. They’re just waiting for the tipping point that will trigger the next stage of their investments.

Why are Americans so resistant to talk about climate change? Why are many of my friends and neighbors in northern Minnesota so hostile toward politicians who do? Well, the answers to that question can be found right here on the Iron Range.

Like many rural places, most of our people work in service jobs and health care. These folks don’t have much power. But big industries like mining and power generation shape the region’s political attitudes through public relations, lobbying and close ties to those in office. Several thousand people owe their high-paying jobs to industries that burn fossil fuels. So, anything that may change the cost/benefit formula on keeping a plant open becomes something dangerous. And those fears are worth considering.

In a political culture like this it’s much easier and certainly more expedient to suggest that fixing climate change is simply impossible. In fact, just toss it over there in the corner with economic diversification, broadband infrastructure, and the growing cultural gap between rural and urban areas. Impossible problems! Let’s just focus on mining and pipelines. It’s the only way out.

But real problems don’t go away by ignoring them. In fact, acknowledging a crisis like climate change puts us on surer footing for the future.

Right now in Luleå — a small coastal steel town in far northern Sweden — global steelmaker SSAB is piloting a new way to make steel. This, according to a Nov. 7 HuffPost story by Nils Adler, “Steel is a climate nightmare. Sweden has a plan to make it green.”

Traditional blast furnaces produce steel by burning iron and coke at very high temperatures, using other elements to remove impurities and strengthen the steel. This is what happens to most of the iron ore that leaves the Mesabi Range and it’s how SSAB has made steel in Sweden since 1978.

SSAB’s new technology accomplishes the same thing using hydrogen and renewable energy sources. Instead of churning carbon emissions into the air, the new process creates water as a byproduct. And though the experiment is still ongoing, everyone from the CEO down to the steelworkers entering the plant gates are excited about how it’s going.

SSAB is the largest steel company in Scandinavia, but has a global reach, including steel mills in Canada, Iowa, and Alabama, and a cut-to-fit plant right here in Minnesota. If their work succeeds we’ll be living in a world where emissions from steelmaking can be cut to zero. No, not all at once. But hardly impossible.

This “green” steel is just as strong, and arguably more pure, but certainly more expensive to produce. SSAB told Adler that their method costs 20-30 percent more than traditional steel. However, the company says lower cost renewable energy and the higher cost of burning carbon under European cap-and-trade laws will offset these expenses when the new technology goes into service.

Sweden has committed to carbon-neutrality by the year 2045. Steelmaking is one of its dirtiest industries, but even they think it can be done.

That brings us to the reality that America seems unwilling to face, so far. That would be the fact that carbon costs us something that isn’t priced into products like gasoline, cars, plastic or food. Those costs include air pollution, wildfires, coastal erosion that threatens private property, military bases and eventually whole cities.

The late Sen. John McCain, when he was the 2008 Republican nominee, argued that climate change was a national security issue. He proposed a market-based cap-and-trade law quite similar to the one being used now by the European Union, the one that inspired SSAB’s experimentation in Sweden.

Cap-and-trade isn’t the only way to limit carbon emissions, of course, but the fact that McCain’s position might now be seen as radical by his own party shows how far afield the U.S. debate on climate has drifted.

We must smash the notion that solving big problems like climate change will somehow be worse for us than the slow decline of our local economy and democratic values. That is nothing more than a fallacy, cooked up by a shockingly small number of people for short-term gain. In fact, we have much to gain.

The most hopeful news in our battered world is this: We can solve problems. Climate change is one of them. We can mine iron and make steel in a world that controls carbon emissions. Very little is truly impossible, unless we keep repeating to ourselves that it is.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. This is a good, insightful piece.

    In the part of MN I inhabit–Red Wing, Goodhue County–the chokehold of Xcel Energy seems nearly absolute. The chokehold is so pervasive, so much taken as the nature of things, that I’m pretty much a minority of one or two or several in complaining about it.

    For sure there is nothing new about special-interest control of politics, but it seems that the defense of democratic values is, and has been, stronger in some parts of Northern Minnesota than elsewhere in the state. But certainly not predominant. Scary times when faith in democracy isn’t easy to maintain. When a visit to the Minnesota Legislature calls for a big dose of Dramamine.

  2. Making iron with hydrogen as the rdductant is relatively simple from a technical standpoint. The problem is cost.

    Hydrogen is not an energy source. Hydrogen is an energy storage medium. Like a battery. It is not found as elemental hydrogen anywhere on earth. It has to be made, usually from methane. This takes energy and leaves the carbon behind, usually as carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide. The other methods are either extremely energy (electricity) intensive or leave other problem residuals.

    At that point you may as well skip the middleman and just use natural gas as the reductant. That is established commerciized technology.

    It’s the same as saying that an electric car is really, at least in some part, a coal fueled car in most areas of the country.

    You can’t get something for nothing.

  3. 20-30% increase for steel is hardly inhibitive for large items like autos. We will get there. For example, at the height of the HRC pricing ahead of the Trump Tariff plan, the average impact per car was $125. I plan to do more digging into this exact project than I already have, but I am curious whether this process is making virgin steel (meaning we still need ore sources) or if it can also be applied to recycled steel processes as well.

    Thanks for the story Aaron!

    • Recycled steel uses electric arc furnaces that merely melt scrap steel. The main energy source is electricity and these so called mini mills are relatively clean except for the fuel used to make the electricity.

      The economics are compelling. This method now accounts for about 75% of the steel produced in the USA.

      USS just paid more for a 3.3 million ton a year mini mill in Arkansas than Cliffs is paying for all of Arcelor’s integrated mills in the USA. The economics of the mini mills ARE compelling.

      The new USS mini mill has some interesting technology aimed at producing cold rolled sheet suitable for use in car bodies. This is the last large market left for integrated “first pour” steel. Nucor is also working on this in Mexico. If either is successful it’s pretty much game over for the Iron Range.

      • A rationalized-to-decarbonize closed loop could take shape through , for example, the regulatory nudge of an indirect carbon tax that would itemize a deposit sum on new production and be returned when the bits , automotive or otherwise , are finally retired as ARC feedstock . Another – assuming autonomous and internally combusted, for now – piece could be to move away from the ” arms race” perpetuated by the perception that large personal vehicles offer better collision survivability .

  4. Oh, and I am a “constitutional conservative” with libertarian principles who believes climate change is a real problem and that the kinds of money spent on the Cold War should be spent on the modernization of industry.

    I think elected republicans pander to the unbelievers, but the average republican who happens to vote more so anti-democrat believes in climate change and that technology needs investment.

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