A nickel-based electric vehicle battery can require up to 77 pounds of nickel. A wind turbine contains almost five tons of copper. Demand for cobalt could exceed supply by 2025. These are some of the estimates that are increasingly being used to support sulfide mining proposals in Minnesota, which host deposits of these so-called “critical minerals” used for renewable energy. Mining companies claim they can provide a safe and reliable source of these commodities for electric car manufacturers and other renewable energy producers.
But at the same time proposals for sulfide mining are marketed as “climate action,” the industry remains one of the country’s top polluters, according to the EPA. No sulphide mine has ever managed to keep their acidic pollution out of the environment. Acidic mine effluents continue to flow from mine sites long after closure. The bright orange-yellow pollution is often pooled between rocks around abandoned western mines or spilled into streams that flow through old coal mines in Appalachia. All evidence suggests that acid mine drainage would be inevitable in water-rich Minnesota, where sulfide mining has never been attempted.
The climate crisis is a water crisis in many ways: too much water is falling too fast in some places, persistent water shortages in the form of droughts are wreaking havoc in other regions, and water quality is a problem almost everywhere. Climate-related temperature changes increase the spread of invasive species, cause more frequent harmful algal blooms, and trigger changes in water chemistry such as B. Acidification. In Minnesota, more frequent heavy rain events are inundating stormwater infrastructure and flooding is contaminating drinking water sources. In a changing climate, access to clean water will be one of the biggest challenges.
There is no closing Pandora’s box of climate change, and communities across the state are already working to adapt to the associated changes in water quality and quantity.
Protecting clean water is an indisputable principle of any sensible climate strategy. The serious and virtually permanent damage that sulfide mining could cause to clean water seriously questions its place in the renewable energy transition.
This is the part where environmental groups often hear that sulfide mining and its associated pollution is the cost of wanting clean energy — that you can’t simultaneously oppose mining of critical minerals and support climate action. In other words, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
But neither clean water nor a climate worth living in are luxuries; we need both, and we have better options without having to choose between them.
Fifty years ago, state-of-the-art supercomputers took up most of an office and weighed a few tons. Now the average smartphone packs a thousand times more computing power into a device that fits in a pocket. This almost incomprehensible speed of technological advancement is also dazzling the clean energy world, with many emerging technologies aiming to eliminate the need for raw materials that are expensive or difficult to responsibly mine.
Batteries for energy storage are a good example of this, as they are a key driver of rising demand forecasts for problem metals like nickel and cobalt. As such, researchers are busy inventing new lower-impact chemicals: iron-air batteries show promise for grid storage, while sodium-ion and aluminum-ion batteries are trying to revolutionize the electric vehicle market. The materials that go into these technologies are plentiful and easier to source in an environmentally responsible manner. We should explore these options further before jumping to the conclusion that today’s highly sought-after metals are worth more than clean water.
While new technologies hold promise, they are no substitute for responsible resource management. Despite the federal government designating minerals like nickel as “critical” to domestic energy security, the US continues to squander these resources. Newly mined nickel, copper and scrap are exported in significant quantities for processing and consumption in other countries. Valuable minerals languish in discarded electronics sitting in garbage drawers in millions of American homes — or, when collected, the e-waste is often sent abroad for recycling. Metal is also buried in landfills every day due to the lack of comprehensive resource circularity policies. A serious commitment to reuse and recycling of the already above-ground mineral reserves could go a long way in meeting demand.
We also need to remember that metal demand projections are just that, projections that we have the power to change. Demand-reduction policies that get to the root of overconsumption will allow us to live more easily — for example, investing in public transport that makes it easier for a family to get by with one car, or limiting planned obsolescence, so that we don’t have to replace mineral-intensive products such as mobile phones and household appliances as often. We should follow the example of the states of New York and North Carolina and urge our representatives in this upcoming legislature to pass legislation in support of a more sustainable and circular economy.
We don’t have to accept new sulfide mining and its expected devastating impact on clean water as a necessary cost of renewable energy. We don’t have to trade our energy system’s dependence on one harmful extractive industry for another. In fact, if we do that, we will trade today’s climate crisis for a future water crisis.
Short-term solutions that create other long-term problems are not the answer. We’re better off taking action to improve metal recovery, reduce consumption, and invest in greener solutions now—while the water in northern Minnesota is still clean.
Abby Rogerson of Duluth is a program officer in northeast Minnesota for the St. Paul-based Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (mncenter.org). Rogerson has directed the research and writing for the center’s Mining the Climate Crisis series.