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A look at some of the biggest subjects shaping environmental news in 2017

Without question, I think, the most important environmental news in Minnesota next year will center on precious-metals mining, in particular the progress of PolyMet Mining Corp.’s NorthMet project.

Without question, I think, the most important environmental news in Minnesota next year will center on precious-metals mining, in particular the progress of PolyMet Mining Corp.’s NorthMet project.

NorthMet entered the home stretch, in terms of state approval, last month when it applied for its first actual permit to mine. This lifts the state’s first copper/nickel mine out of the concept stage — though the concepts became quite detailed in the course of environmental-impact review — and into the phase where actual, final plans are reviewed for compliance with state requirements.

PolyMet needs more than 20 permits for various phases of the project — open-pit mining, ore processing, waste retention and more — but has been saying it expects to have them all in hand by year’s end. An 18-month construction program would follow, and then mining could start. Or not.

The project has a wide array of challengers, most but not all concerned with risks to water quality and other components of ecological and human health; many others object to the likelihood of long-term mitigation needs and the unlikelihood that any company can be held to account for harm that persists for centuries. PolyMet can count on further administrative and court challenges.

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But it can’t necessarily count on favorable financing terms from Glencore, which owns a big chunk of the company and provided a critical loan early last year. Nor can it count on copper prices rebounding to a level that makes production from a new Minnesota mine competitive with metal from big mines already operating elsewhere.

As for all those promised jobs and tax revenue, Minnesotans ought not to count on seeing much until those prices improve. But I think we can surely count on PolyMet to push the project all the way through the permitting phase, if only to ensure its viability for operation — or sale — somewhere down the road.

Meanwhile, the much larger mine that Twin Metals Minnesota has hoped to build near Birch Lake appears not merely dead but really most sincerely dead following this month’s announcement by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that TMM’s mineral leases will not be renewed. It’s always possible that decision could be overturned in court, however.

On the other hand, the odds may be rising that Kennecott Exploration Co. will be moving ahead next year with plans to mine copper deposits on land where it holds leases in Aitkin County; it has been picking up the pace on exploratory drilling.

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Looking beyond the state’s borders, the question of replacing wolves on Isle Royale has now moved from the what-to-do phase to the how-to-do-it stage, with the National Park Service’s recent announcement that it proposes to capture and import 20 to 30 new wolves to the island over a three-year period that will start as soon as possible.

ASAP in this case probably means autumn  2018, after revision of the new proposal in response to public comments that will be taken through mid-March of next year; the plan is to time the imports to late fall or early winter to maximize the odds of success.

That process could be contentious, too, pitting advocates of a hands-off approach to federally designated wilderness areas (like the majority of Isle Royale National Park) against those who support the park’s conclusion that intervention is necessary to stabilize the island’s ecological balance among wolves, moose and vegetation. Also, perhaps, its appeal to visitors.

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At the national level, the biggest story surely will be how much harm can be accomplished by a president who would seem to lead the league in opposition to environmental protection and progress on climate change.

I happen to think that’s anybody’s guess, because even Donald Trump doesn’t seem to know what he really wants to do. Once he decides, we will all gain important lessons on the various constraints and competing forces that confine a presidency (especially, in all probability, an inept and unpopular presidency).

I do see reason for optimism on clean energy, however, if only because the investments and other market forces that have been driving down coal consumption and ramping up renewable energy are somewhat independent of presidential whim and therefore likely to continue.

Even if the Trump administration proves to be as pro-fossil and anti-renewable as the most dire forecasts hold, what utility or investor will want to revise long-term strategies on what may be highly short-term change in Washington?

The other national trend that bears watching, I think, is how the landscape may be changing for pipeline projects, and particularly for oil. The successful efforts to cancel the Sandpiper project and at least stall the Dakota Access Pipeline are examples of a widening opposition that continues to grow — and, especially in the latter case, of an engagement by Indian tribes on environmental questions that holds great promise.

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Globally, no story in 2017 is likely to rival the pace and various impacts of changing climate on a warming planet.

Within the past month, we’ve had revelations about the unexpectedly rapid rate of melting in both the Arctic and the Antarctic,  a stunning discovery about accelerating rates of methane emission, and the list can go on and on but I’ve gone on long enough for a piece that’s supposed to be short.

OK, just one more subject area: food. As in food safety, food security, sustainable food production, food engineering …

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When I look back over 2016, noting the stories I most meant to get to but didn’t, I notice how many relate to this most intimate of our connections with the earth and its fate.  So I’ll be focusing on more subjects at the nexus of food and environment next year.

And as always I welcome suggestions from the audience.