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Choose this over sulfide mining: renewables, jobs and metals recycling

Recycling copper and other metals can help address the climate crisis, increase jobs, and provide the materials needed to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.

Minnesotans want renewable energy, well-paid jobs, a livable climate, clean water, and a thriving economy. How do we get there?

Paula Maccabee
Paula Maccabee
Reducing our carbon emissions to maintain a livable climate will require building renewable electricity generation. That effort requires copper and other metals.

In the coming year, we can expect continued pressure to approve new Minnesota copper sulfide ore mines, ostensibly for a renewable energy supply chain. Not surprisingly, recent mining company-sponsored studies claim that, in the future, renewable energy will require major increases in global copper mining. Naturally, many people are skeptical of company-backed studies. And for good reason.

Copper consumption is down

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), current average annual U.S. copper consumption has declined about 25% since the early 1990s. USGS explains that technological advances played a big part in this decline. Fiber optics displaced copper wire in communications and PVC pipes replaced copper pipes in home building and public infrastructure.

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Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, renewable energy production in the U.S. grew more than 70% during the very same period. Clearly, the relationship between growth of renewable energy and copper consumption is anything but simple.

The question “how much copper might renewables require?” most certainly hasn’t been answered. The more important question is “How do we responsibly source that copper?” The answer to that question will determine whether we leave a better Minnesota for our grandchildren.

Most of us realize that mining sulfide ores to source copper threatens clean water and public health. Across the United States, every sulfide mine in a water-rich environment has resulted in acid mine drainage and/or toxic metal pollution of lakes, streams or groundwater aquifers. That is a 100% failure to protect water quality. There is nothing magical about locating a sulfide mine in Minnesota that would prevent toxic pollution; if anything, it’s far riskier here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Nor would mining here miraculously change the practices of multinational bad actors like Glencore, the company behind the PolyMet proposal.

Start with recycling nonferrous metals

If we want renewable energy, good jobs, and a livable climate, then recycling nonferrous metals is the right place to start. Mining copper typically requires a tremendous amount of energy, much of it from fossil fuels.

Over its 20-year mining duration, the proposed PolyMet/Glencore mine would generate 16 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent pollution by burning fossil fuels and destroying wetlands where carbon is sequestered. In contrast, recycling copper typically uses 90% less energy.

Recycled metals provide a huge and growing resource. The USGS has estimated that, so far, the U.S. is only recycling about one-third of the potential copper available to be recycled. There is a lot of room to grow.

Recycling metals is also a powerful way to generate jobs. Copper recycling is more labor-intensive than today’s highly automated mines. Recycling copper and other metals can help address the climate crisis, increase jobs, and provide the materials needed to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.

In 2015, the United States exported more than $16 billion worth of nonferrous metal scrap to foreign countries as well as exporting huge quantities of nonferrous metal concentrates. If the U.S. needs copper to achieve our climate goals, we could start by asking if exporting these metals makes sense — and if it doesn’t, how we can utilize the copper we already have mined to achieve our climate goals.

Statewide study is needed

Minnesota is lagging far behind the targets we set on a bipartisan basis in 2007 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. We’re long overdue for a strategic assessment of how to reduce climate change and foster renewable energy, jobs, and clean water. Right now, Minnesota needs a systematic statewide study to answer these important questions:

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  • What are the barriers to renewable energy and reducing Minnesota’s carbon footprint? Is there any evidence at all that a “shortage” of copper is holding back progress?
  • Could metals needed for renewable energy be provided through existing sources, including through recycling and, if so, what savings would be realized in reducing fossil fuel emissions and preserving carbon sequestration in our forests and wetlands?
  • What potential is there throughout Minnesota for jobs and economic development from sourcing already mined metals, and what policies would provide appropriate incentives?
  • What costs in pollution, habitat destruction, ill health, and harmful climate impacts could be avoided if metals were secured without sulfide mining in Minnesota?

Minnesota must base our renewable energy strategy on facts, probing questions, and a 360-degree analysis of ways to secure needed metals. It’s time to get real and get to work. 

Paula Maccabee is the advocacy director and counsel for WaterLegacy, a Minnesota nonprofit supporting clean water, a livable climate, and a sustainable and thriving economy.

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