Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The White House wants to transition to a green economy, which is tricky without mines


The transition to a low-carbon future will require a lot of metals like copper, nickel and lithium to build everything from solar panels to electric car batteries. The Biden administration's recent decision to block a proposed mine in Minnesota shows just how tough it could be to develop a domestic supply for those metals. Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Pretty much everyone agrees the world is going to need to seriously ramp up production of minerals like cobalt, graphite, lithium and nickel to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies.

JORDY LEE: The renewable energy transition is not going to happen without the mining issue. That's just a fact.

KRAKER: Jordy Lee manages the supply chain transparency initiative at the Colorado School of Mines. He says over the past several decades, the U.S. has essentially outsourced mining, largely because of environmental concerns. That means many of the critical minerals the U.S. relies on are mined and processed elsewhere, often in China.

Ben Steinberg is a former Department of Energy official who runs a coalition pushing for a North American battery supply chain. He says that global movement of minerals creates a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

BEN STEINBERG: It is kind of interesting - right? - that you have the environmental community, you know, saying, don't dig up the stuff. Yet you have to dig up the stuff to get your Tesla.

KRAKER: And that's the challenge because historically, that digging up of stuff often leaves behind poisoned water and a scarred landscape. That's why many people in northern Minnesota are celebrating Interior Secretary Deb Haaland's recent cancellation of two mineral leases on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. That's a million acres of federally protected lakes and rivers with water so clean, many paddlers drink it straight from a cup.

JACK LEE: We think this decision is awesome.

KRAKER: Jack Lee heads the Voyageur Outward Bound School near where a company called Twin Metals wants to dig an underground mine for copper and other metals like nickel and cobalt.

JACK LEE: The proposed Twin Metals mine would have very likely polluted the Boundary Waters. That would have ended our ability to serve our mission and serve all these young people in the Boundary Waters.

KRAKER: In many ways, the Twin Metals mine is a classic NIMBY, or not in my backyard, fight. Opponents raised concerns over environmental risks. Supporters tout the high-paying jobs.

But increasingly, mine backers are starting to make a more global argument. Twin Metals' Julie Padilla says the project would help provide the metals needed to confront climate change.

JULIE PADILLA: The World Bank has said we're going to need as much copper in the next 25 years as we've mined in the last 5,000. And every year, we can produce enough nickel for 280,000 electric vehicles from this project.

KRAKER: Predictions of critical mineral shortages have spurred a new focus on developing a domestic supply chain, with some carmakers even investing in mines. Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, argues Twin Metals would do little to help domestically since the metals it extracts would likely get shipped abroad for processing. She says the U.S. should instead turn to its allies with larger reserves.

BECKY ROM: The secure supply chain of metals comes from Canada, Norway, Australia, where the amounts of critical minerals are far greater.

KRAKER: But Twin Metals' Julie Padilla argues that if the U.S. doesn't play a more active role in securing its mineral supply...

PADILLA: ...Then we're really saying we aren't going to be responsible for ourselves. And we are going to hope that those allied nations will continue to supply us with what we need even in the face of their own needs.

KRAKER: Some environmental groups say they're not against all mines, arguing instead that some places are too special to dig up and that it's possible to both protect areas like the Boundary Waters while still acquiring the minerals needed to go greener.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Duluth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.