Copper demand softens, adding further headwinds to Minnesota mining projects

By: - July 12, 2023 8:30 am

About 10 miles south of the proposed Polymet sulfide mine, the St Louis River begins its journey to Lake Superior flowing southwest out of Seven Beaver Lake in northeastern Minnesota. Photo by Rob Levine/Minnesota Reformer.

One of the main arguments in favor of copper-sulfide mining in northern Minnesota is that those metals will have a major role to play in the ongoing transition toward cleaner, greener energy sources.

“The world is demanding greener energy, which in turn demands the metals we mine,” as Twin Metals Minnesota explains on its website.

Similarly, PolyMet calls metals like copper “life-essential and vital to global carbon reduction efforts,” and notes that copper “is found extensively in renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines and solar arrays, and is experiencing growing demand in electric vehicles.”

A key word in both companies’ statements above: “demand.” The commercial viability of projects like Twin Metals and PolyMet depends in large part on projections of demand for metals like copper, nickel and cobalt. And as a recent report from Reuters illustrates, those projections come with considerable uncertainty.

“New electric vehicles from Tesla and rivals are being engineered for efficiency in a way that cuts copper content, changes that could limit demand growth for the metal as the next-generation of EVs hits the road,” Reuters’ Mai Nguyen reported earlier this month.

Efforts to reduce weight and increase the efficiency of EVs have led industry analysts at Goldman Sachs and CRU Group to slash their per-vehicle copper use estimates by 15 to 20%, leading to significant reductions in expected demand for copper by 2030. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, for instance, recently told investors the company hopes that changes to the cars’ batteries will allow them to slash their copper use by 75%.

Opponents of copper-nickel mining in Minnesota have been warning for years about overly optimistic forecasts of mineral demand.

“Demand projections are just flawed,” said Aaron Klemz of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which has been challenging PolyMet’s proposed mine in court. “Things are changing every day when it comes to battery formulations.”

The group noted last year that “mining companies have incentives to inflate demand in order to attract investors and garner political influence. Their bottom-line is to protect their profits.”

Klemz pointed to the International Energy Agency’s long history of almost comically incorrect forecasts for wind and solar installation as an example of how even leading independent groups can botch their predictions about the future.

For the moment, the PolyMet and Twin Metals projects are both on hold indefinitely. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revoked a key PolyMet permit last month, while the Twin Metals project is on ice after the Biden administration withdrew 225,000 acres of public lands of the Superior National Forest from the federal mine leasing program for the next 20 years.

Global copper prices, meanwhile, have fallen roughly 20% from highs hit in recent years, with each price drop undermining the commercial viability of Minnesota’s proposed mines. And in a likely unintentional sign of the times, a link on Twin Metals’ website to a page about “Strategic Metals and Mining” leads to a 404 error.

(Update: Twin Metals has fixed their link, you can read about strategic metals here)

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.