The troubled border between consumption and conservation

January 26, 2022 7:57 am

Leonidas Overlook near Eveleth. Courtesy

Strange things happen in the borderland. This is true of borders between nations or empires — the root of Casablanca’s intrigue during World War II — but especially along the border between nature and human civilization.

Bears fall limp on trampolines. Moose tangle in hammocks. Tourists lose themselves in the woods, their dying cellphones lighting a doomed path even deeper into the wilderness.

Then the helicopters come, looking for the source of the signal. They scare up the birds as their blades sweep across the marsh reeds. The metal dragons return to their dens. So it goes along the borderland.

In northern Minnesota we’ve become accustomed to this and other important borders. Of course, we see a literal border. There lies Canada. But the people of this place are more often focused on another border: the shapeless line between conservation and consumption of our natural resources.

Our reason to be

The old timers will tell you, and it is true, that the communities of the place where I am from — the Mesabi Iron Range — only exist because of mining and logging. Small towns formed at the mouths of the richest iron mines in the world. They persist today in the wide footprint of physically massive mining operations.

Even though Minnesota mines no longer rank among the top ten global iron producers, they remain the beating heart of North American steel production.

You can go back much farther in time to find communities of the Ojibwe, Dakota, and pre-historic peoples using natural bounty for their own interdependent societies. Fish, game, wild rice, furs and healing herbs. You would even find evidence that they used metals like iron and copper in sparing amounts.

But the difference between the last 150 years and the previous 15,000 is plain to see. Recent history sees the resources of places like this extracted not just for nearby peoples, but for an ever-growing global mass of industrialized humanity.

Minnesota iron, crushed and smelted into steel, may be found in every nation on earth, littered across the ocean floor and even orbiting the planet itself. Some was used for the most noble creations in human history. Most of this steel was blown up in wars or consumed in disposable products and infrastructure. Some steel lives on, recycled again and again: molten metal ghosts that walk the earth forever.

The amount of consumption looms as stunningly large as this time period seems shockingly short. Empires that last only two human lifetimes barely qualify as empires. Minnesota’s iron age has only just lasted this long.

And it continues.

Steel the one

Today’s iron mining industry employs far fewer people than when Iron Range towns were built, and yet displaces even more earth than it did 100 years ago. Minnesota produces about as much iron ore as it did during any peacetime in the 20th Century, almost 39 million tons in 2021.

But the iron and steel business is changing. Expensive old blast furnaces are rapidly giving way to newer, smaller electric arc furnaces. These furnaces are like goats. They eat all kinds of rich iron ores and steel scrap to make smaller, specialized batches of steel. And even though they melt steel with electricity, these mills use fewer resources than the old technology. They are the reason steelmakers across the world claim the ability to go carbon neutral, some already and the rest within 30 years.

Cleveland Cliffs recently overtook U.S. Steel as North American’s biggest integrated steelmaker, mostly on the strength of its investment in new technology. U.S. Steel, now a shell of what was once the world’s largest corporation, is following suit. Last month, U.S. Steel announced it would build a $3 billion mini-mill in Arkansas. This shifts the future of the company away from its Rust Belt birthplace into a manufacturing state with lower tolerance for unions and regulations.

That might be part of the reason why the most obvious development hasn’t happened yet. Why aren’t there new mini-mills in the works here in northern Minnesota? Here the ore could be mined, processed and turned to steel in one place. This would reduce transportation costs and save energy. Materials heated beyond 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit wouldn’t have to cool into icy slabs on ships navigating the Great Lakes.

It’s not a new question. They were asking that 100 years ago. But it is a facetious question. I know why, as do the steel companies. Turning earth into steel is so expensive and volatile that enormous profits can become even bigger liabilities overnight. New steel still requires coking coal, a mineral better found in Appalachia. Making steel in Minnesota would require full commitment to scrap steel and iron briquettes. The companies are afraid to confront such risk, especially in a place with higher labor costs and few high-volume customers nearby.

Meanwhile, those of us who live in the shadow of these companies remain afraid to confront our masters, even though nothing would better ensure the future of Minnesota’s mining industry than vertical integration right here. Why that hasn’t happened yet is perhaps one reason we should be wary about another controversial topic.

The temptation of copper-nickel

Even though value-added iron mining remains viable, my native northern Minnesota now seems best known for mines that do not exist: proposed new copper, nickel and precious metal mines like PolyMet, Twin Metals, and others.

One such mine drew considerable press this month. Talon Metals, a British Virgin Islands-based mineral development company, announced an off-take agreement with electric automaker Tesla for 75,000 tons of nickel starting in 2026. Electric vehicle batteries use tremendous amounts of nickel, which means that converting the 286 million cars in the U.S. into electric vehicles would either require new technology or vast amounts of nickel.

Off-take agreements like this are as binding as high school promise rings. The contracts include plenty of easy outs for both sides. The mine isn’t even permitted yet. But you can’t ignore a potential union between the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer and Minnesota’s natural resources.

PolyMet, which proposes a mine near Hoyt Lakes, and Twin Metals, proposing another near Ely, also tout electric vehicles as one obvious future market for their minerals. They, too, will eventually roll out off-take agreements as part of their argument for permits and other public assets.

If you follow this story you might view this as a classic “jobs vs. the environment” debate, a rusty old cliche from the 1970s thinking about how this stuff works. But it’s actually an even older cliche: the notion that progress can only happen through uninhibited consumption of non-renewable resources.

The real and under-examined problem for Minnesota’s proposed copper-nickel mines is that their estimated costs exceed the potential profits from selling the metals at current prices. The junior mining companies, speaking as much to their future corporate owners as to us, respond that prices for copper and nickel stand to rise dramatically with future demand. Thus, the economic viability of projects like PolyMet or Twin Metals should really be judged through the lens of future markets.

This might be true, but remains highly debatable.

For one thing, even if we swallowed the hook on the company line, we’d still be years from the economic benefit of new mining. That is, to the degree that this benefit wouldn’t just dovetail into automation across the mining sector.

For another, why should we assess an estimated future value of copper without also estimating the future value of fresh water? Or real estate, for that matter. I mean, that’s the nice thing about the future. You can focus on the part you like and no one can question the numbers. Even if you use honest assessment of economic or environmental trends, one trend cannot not predict intervening factors that could fundamentally change the equation.

We live in a country that can’t seem to agree that something should be done about a pandemic. Minor glitches in global supply chains seem capable of unraveling the whole economy. We’ve had a rough couple of years. Our resource-rich American lifestyle has proven deceptively fragile. We can all feel it. And it is terrifying.

Facing facts

The Thwaites Glacier ice shelf in Antarctica may collapse into the ocean within the decade. Scientists reported this projection late last year at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Once that happens, warming water would then deplete the glacier itself, quickly increasing sea levels across the world. Coastal cities and states across the world would be slowly submerged, displacing human populations at levels unseen in the history of our species. I might live to see this. My children almost certainly will.

There’s talk of a sort of “ice glue” that could hold the glacier together. But in a fight between ice glue and a warming ocean, my money is on the briny deep.

A new all-electric Ford F-150 may be of little use in preventing this outcome. Only wide scale conservation of resources — less driving, energy use, and consumption of disposable goods — can address the core problem of carbon-caused warming. And if we won’t conserve to halt climate change, we will want to conserve for our own survival in a world where today’s conveniences may come dear.

One-hundred million people in our country alone may seek new homes, jobs, and a fresh start on a smaller continent. Will we really want to tie up even more of northern Minnesota’s land in holding ponds, pits, and dumps, in the pursuit of lower-and-lower grade ores? All for just a few hundred jobs? Or will we want to be ready to benefit from the influx by maintaining independent, self-determined communities? I’d take the latter, even though that’s hardly a majority position in my neighborhood.

This isn’t about stopping mining. I’m talking about mining smart, as though the ore’s value belonged to all of us.

That’s why we should discuss an unpopular option for the copper and nickel of northern Minnesota. Current projects propose to give the resource to bidders who aim to rapidly supply consumer manufacturing as prices spike. However, the ore would be more valuable to society if we held out for when its strategic importance was even higher.

These new ores, so close to fresh water and requiring such vast displacement of overburden, should only be mined as a public necessity, not just a commercial interest. We should only deal with companies willing to commit to good labor practices and a specific environmental plan, one that doesn’t expand and flex beyond the permits. We must retain state ownership of valuable lands, using mineral leases to benefit schools as they were intended.

Right now, the players are engaged in gamesmanship to maximize profit and minimize costs. Be assured, Minnesotans, that our land rights, labor, and tax revenue are among those costs they want reduced to bare minimum. This situation requires critical thinking and appropriate skepticism, not fanatical worship or political thuggery.

It is logical to say that demand for copper and nickel will rise if we keep up what we’re doing. But it is also folly to consume another century of ores to make disposable products that won’t address our global resource problems. Yes, we will need electric vehicles, but we will need to make much more use of recycling than mining if the program is to work. In fact, 80% of the world’s supply of copper is already mined, in use, and recycled over and over again. Ergo, we cannot mine our way out of the crisis ahead.

This place, this earth, our own ingenuity have much to offer. We would not be what we are without these resources. The ore from this ground, mined by four generations of my family, can change the world. It already has.

But somewhere in the fog of culture wars fought by overgrown children lies a borderline, a threshold after which our taking becomes irreversible destruction and, moreover, unnecessary waste. On this dangerous ground we risk giving away our birthright for a small pouch of coins. Coins, I might add, that will prove worthless if we fail in the primary task.

Respecting this thin, jagged line between consumption and conservation is not just some hippie fantasy. It is the sole purpose of our existence on this land. This border, cloaked in rich but threatened forests, represents the viability of our civilization. Once crossed, there is no going back.

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.