Land just upstream of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota was leased for copper mining — until the plan was recently scrapped.
This mine would have provided a domestic source of minerals crucial for decarbonizing the economy and mitigating climate change, but at great expense — offering a preview of the difficult decisions that lie ahead.
The development of these leases would likely have been a disaster for the wilderness: the odds are high that the sulfide-ore mining would eventually result in acid mine drainage and the leaching of toxic metals into protected waterways on which a diversity of life depends, in an area with a substantial and established recreation economy.
The Biden administration’s recent cancellation of these two mining leases is thus a victory for conservation, as is the proposed 20-year moratorium on 200,000 acres of adjacent federal lands.
But there are always complex tradeoffs. The minerals this mine would have provided are increasingly vital to shifting to renewable energy and decarbonizing the American economy. They would also have bolstered the goals of the Biden administration, as reflected in the America Competes Act, passed by the House of Representatives, to onshore supply chains and emphasize domestic resource development. These minerals include copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and silver. All of these, to varying degrees, are crucial components of renewable energy technologies.
To combat climate change, we need such minerals — a lot of them — and quickly.
Take for example, that electric vehicles (EVs) use 10 times more copper than internal combustion vehicles — 183 pounds versus 18-49 pounds. And a 2020 study predicted increased demand “for materials between 2015 and 2060 of 87,000% for EV batteries, 1000% for wind power, and 3000% for solar cells and photovoltaics.” Another study notes that “mineral demand for use in EVs and battery storage is a major force, growing at least thirty times to 2040. Lithium sees the fastest growth, with demand growing by over 40 times…followed by graphite, cobalt and nickel (around 20-25 times).”
All of this reflects a growing conflict between competing — though ultimately connected — environmental concerns. On the one hand, large, open-pit mines are a destructive force on the landscape and a substantial threat to wilderness and waters. On the other, the resources they provide are integral to mitigating climate change.
Protecting undeveloped, unimpaired landscapes is integral to mitigating the other great environmental crisis of our time — biodiversity collapse. Recent initiatives such as the Biden administration’s “America the Beautiful” plan are part of a global movement to conserve 30 percent of all lands and waters by 2030 — one crucial component of slowing ecological devastation. This necessitates not only leaving currently undeveloped areas as they are, but restoring many others and increasing connectivity and corridors between formally protected or otherwise intact places.
In other words, we need to be increasing, not diminishing, intact landscapes.
To further complicate the decision space, biodiversity collapse and climate change are connected issues: Climate change is amplifying the biodiversity crisis, with implications for not only protected landscapes, but all lands and waters. Without a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the rate of climactic change will be at the limits of adaptability for many species.
Protected areas like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are already changing in response to warming — shifting, in a high-emissions scenario, from boreal forest to prairie. Without quick action to mitigate climate change, which necessitates relying heavily on some of the minerals found in adjacent areas, Boundary Waters, like the rest of the world will be drastically altered.
This is just one set of issues in tension at the nexus of critical minerals, environment and the climate — an emerging conflict with global implications. A 2020 study found that potential mining — overwhelmingly for resources key to renewable energy — globally coincides with 8 percent of protected areas, 7 percent with key biodiversity areas, and 16 percent with remaining wilderness.
In the American West alone, many new mining projects are in the works with similar potential conflicts between the necessity of obtaining minerals for the renewable energy economy and preserving ecologically intact landscapes, sometimes with implications for local and indigenous peoples. These include a cobalt mine near the Frank Church Wilderness in Idaho, a lithium mine opposed by Indigenous groups near Thacker Pass in Nevada, a gold and antinomy mine in Idaho that may adversely impact fisheries utilized by the Nez Perce, and there are potential rare earth mines scattered throughout remote parts of the West and Alaska.
While this conflict may be unavoidable, it can be reduced by thoughtful policy and reformed consumption patterns.
First, the energy transition should not simply reproduce postwar American style consumption and waste, which remains key to many environmental problems. Rather, renewable energy should, like the rest of the economy, transition to a circular economy of radical reuse and reuptake. Fortunately, there are promising new innovations to not only recycle elements critical for renewable energy, but to resurrect old mines including extracting minerals from the waste of old mining sites.
Second, where the creation of new mining sites is deemed necessary, sustainable best practices should be incorporated as much as possible, including minimizing disturbed land area, prioritizing water management, proper processing of chemicals, as well as appropriate closure and reclamation once mining has concluded.
Finally, deeper engagement with local communities is needed in developing new mining projects, not just in the promise of jobs, but to understand their concerns and expectations more fully. This may then allow a discussion of the climate implications of not moving forward with metals mining projects and the profound impact this will have on all of us.
At a minimum, this tension between important environmental goals, the economy and security will continue to create deep challenges for decision-makers. Making the trade-offs explicit from the beginning, and embracing the complexity is the only way to hope to create lasting policy.
Chris Dunn, Ph.D., is an environmental journalist at the Payne Institute for Public Policy, with a background in environmental ethics and conservation.
Morgan Bazilian, Ph.D., is professor and director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. Previously, he was lead energy specialist at the World Bank.