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The five environmental stories to watch in 2020

Next year will be a pivotal one for many of Minnesota’s most controversial environmental debates, from mining to climate change and the 2020 elections. Here’s a look at some of the big questions heading into 2020:

File photo courtesy of the Timberjay
PolyMet Mining has won state and federal approval to break ground on its $1 billion copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes.
1. Will PolyMet move forward?

PolyMet Mining has won state and federal approval to break ground on its $1 billion copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes. But the project now faces serious questions after Minnesota courts put several permits on hold by this year. 

First, The Minnesota Court of Appeals ordered a lower court to examine if state regulators hid concerns the federal government had with a key water safety permit. The Court of Appeals is also investigating whether Glencore, the Swiss mining giant that owns a majority of PolyMet’s shares, should be named on state permits, and whether the plan for a tailings dam at the mine is safe enough.

On top of the permit issues, PolyMet’s majority owner Glencore is now facing a bribery investigation in the United Kingdom and is in the midst of a leadership change.

After a year of turmoil, 2020 could be pivotal for a project that has faced 15 years of environmental review and could bring hundreds of jobs to the Iron Range. If built, it would be the first copper-nickel mine in the state.

2. Will the Line 3 pipeline get built? 

Another controversial project on the brink of construction is Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline. The Canadian energy company is hoping to build a 337-mile pipeline through northern Minnesota to replace an aging and corroding one that is operating at half capacity. State regulators on the Public Utilities Commission granted the $2.6 billion project a Certificate of Need and approved its route.

In July, however, the Court of Appeals ruled the PUC failed to consider the impact an oil spill could have on Lake Superior’s watershed, setting the project back months. A new environmental assessment was completed earlier this month by the Department of Commerce, modeling a spill into a tributary of the St. Louis River. In a worst case-type scenario, the research found oil would be unlikely to reach Lake Superior.

Final Line 3 Replacement Project route
Final Line 3 Replacement Project route
The five-member PUC now needs to vote again on whether to approve Line 3, which also needs federal permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to move forward.

Opponents of Line 3, who argue building new fossil fuel infrastructure would further contribute to climate change, have protested the Walz administration at many public events and have taken steps to disrupt Enbridge’s existing infrastructure. Will wide-scale protests follow if Line 3 does get approved for construction?

3. Will the Legislature pass any climate change policy?

The 2019 session ended with very little new climate and energy policy, despite a Democratic push to make Minnesota’s power grid carbon-free by 2050 and GOP support for a measure to make it tougher to build new fossil fuel projects.

While 2019 was ultimately focused on writing a two-year budget, such debates could find new life at the Legislature in 2020. Especially since lawmakers will have a healthy pot of unused money from Xcel Energy, from the funds the energy company pays to store nuclear waste in Minnesota.

4. Will there be a showdown over the study of mining near the Boundary Waters?

Ever since the Trump administration canceled a study that could have led to a 20-year ban on copper-nickel mining in the Rainy River watershed, some Democrats have tried to finish the research or at least get the federal government to disclose what it found. 

While U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and others have not been successful in Congress, the state Department of Natural Resources has asked for the information to include in its environmental review of a mine Twin Metals Minnesota wants to build just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
The project is located in Superior National Forest, roughly nine miles southeast of Ely and about five miles outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The DNR won’t say if it will proceed with its review if the federal government stonewalls the agency. But the state has left open the possibility of a showdown with the pro-mining Trump administration. “We will request the information, we expect to get it,” Barb Naramore, an assistant DNR commissioner, told reporters. “If for some reason it’s not forthcoming we’ll need to evaluate the implications of that at that point in time.”

5. How will environmental issues play in the 2020 elections? 

The 2020 elections carry massive stakes for local environmental issues. If Trump is re-elected, his administration is likely to continue support for Twin Metals. Many of the Democratic frontrunners have said they oppose mining in the Rainy River watershed, including Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Joe Biden has not, although the Obama-Biden administration launched the study on a 20-year mining ban in the Rainy River watershed and took other steps to stymie Twin Metals.

Trump has generally supported pipelines, while Warren and Sanders have also opposed Line 3.

At the Legislature, Republicans would likely need to keep a majority in the state Senate to head off the most aggressive parts of Gov. Tim Walz’s climate change agenda in 2021. While not all DFLers support the governor’s measures, minority Democrats in the Senate recently launched a “Clean Energy and Climate Caucus” with an eye on passing some form of Walz’s legislation.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 12/30/2019 - 09:26 am.

    I’ve read and heard Betty McCollum argue against mining near the Boundary Waters.

    The American people are big users of technology. They understand fueling a stable economy requires the use of resources, and they support the extraction of those resources. If the left has legitimate concerns, they should be investigated, but they are going to have to do better than Rep. McCollum’s fact free,simple minded rants. They are also going to have to learn that after 15 years of studying and debating a project, calls for more documentation don’t fool anyone.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/31/2019 - 08:12 pm.

      Pick one:

      1. Copper nickel, sulfide mining adjacent to one of the most pristine watersheds in the world


      2. The same thing in an arid desert environment

      Those are real choices. So the proposition if we want a new cell phone we better support these mines is a false choice.

      The real decision is about creating jobs at some risk to the local environment.

      And I am not strongly opposed to this, but allowing foreign corporate entities with questionable histories to hide behind front end shell corporations is a non starter.

      • Submitted by Mary Britton on 01/01/2020 - 08:53 am.

        I’d also like more information about the hundreds of jobs the mine is supposed to create. From what I understand, mining is largely automated these days and many of the jobs require technical backgrounds. If that is so, then do the folks who live in the area have the required skill set, or will the company be transferring employees in?

        Another question – if jobs are so important, then why doesn’t the Minnesota Legislature do more to get better broadband access to the more remote parts of the state? That would open up job opportunities.

      • Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 01/02/2020 - 05:49 am.

        Well sir, I do not share your expertise in mine engineering and geology. If the same opportunities exist in the desert, why is no one exploiting them? What is the benefit of a waging a costly, 20 year battle to start a business over starting that same business elsewhere in, say, 2 or 3 years?

        • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/02/2020 - 11:03 am.

          “The Escondida copper mine in Chile’s Atacama desert is jointly owned by BHP (57.5%), Rio Tinto Corp. (30%), and Japan Escondida (12.5%). In 2012, the massive Escondida mine accounted for 5% of total global copper mine production. Gold and silver are extracted as by-products from the ore. ”

          Thar’s gold in them thar hills…

          And that includes the MN Range. But, not so much as to entice the mining giants in AND produce an “iron” clad guarantee covering potential environmental damage.

          Just saying NO to PolyMet and TwinMetals just prolongs the argument and the resentment of the local folks who are pro mining.

          Saying YES and requiring the operators to have a “watertight” guarantee that they stand behind for the life of the threat they are creating is the win/win middle ground.

          The reality is these mines will not go forward if they have to make this guarantee: they’ll just expand in the Chilean desert.

          The only way Copper Nickel in viable in N MN is if the tax payers are put on the hook for long term costs.

          • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/02/2020 - 08:44 pm.

            Connor: I suspect we agree that any potential long term cost risks of these mines should not fall on the tax payers?

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/30/2019 - 11:58 am.

    Enbridge seems to be proposing to replace a leaky, old 34″ pipe with a new 36″ one.

    If leaks are the worry isn’t this a good thing?

    I get the opposition to enabling a fossil fuel future; but, there does not seem to be a “abandon the old line and close up shop” movement. Is the green strategy to hope that the thing leaks so much and does so much damage that it get’s shutdown?

    And even then, does Enbridge not have the option to repair at will into the future?

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