Twin Metals Minnesota has marketed its controversial plan for a copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) as more environmentally conscious than your average mine.
The company says the project is crucial to the advancement of green technology because the underground mine would produce metals needed to run wind turbines, solar panels and electric car batteries. Twin Metals also plans to use a “dry stack” storage system for toxic mining waste that some environmentalists prefer — though others say will put the dangerous byproducts perilously close to waters that flow into the BWCA.
Now, Twin Metals says it wants to slash the mine’s potential greenhouse gas emissions by electrifying its vehicle fleet, and, eventually, running on renewable energy. “We’re doing this because it fits our mission; it’s the right thing to do,” said Julie Padilla, chief regulatory officer at Twin Metals. “All of these pieces are in line with our own principles and our parent company’s principles about advancing safe technology, for worker safety and for the environment.”
The announcement, however, has not swayed the project’s opponents, who argue the mine’s potential for water pollution of a pristine wilderness is still a top concern and say the mine poses other environmental risks.
Here’s what you need to know about what this means for the Twin Metals project:
How common are electric mining vehicles?
Nearly all of the “mining and large support vehicles” for the project will be electric, says a Twin Metals news release. Padilla said that includes large haulers, crushers, loaders and vehicles that will be stacking and compacting tailings. Other electric vehicles, she said, will be part of onsite transport. Initially, Twin Metals had planned on diesel equipment.
The mine will be the first with an electric vehicle fleet in Minnesota, Padilla said.
Electric powered mining equipment has been around for decades, but only recently have mining companies begun to make the switch from diesel-powered vehicles to battery-electric vehicles. Over the past few years, mining companies in Canada and Australia have begun to utilize electric haulers, drills, mine trucks and production drills.
At the Borden gold mine in Ontario, Newmont Goldcorp has already swapped all underground diesel fleets for electric vehicles.
“It’s not brand new and it’s not untested, but it’s certainly at the early stages of adoption,” Padilla said of electric mining vehicle technology.
Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, said Minnesota Power, the electric utility, is planning on running experimental tests of fully electric hauler trucks for the state’s taconite mines. While Johnson said mines hope to adopt them, testing feasibility is important since the trucks are $4 million apiece, and one facility might have as many as 250. They also require new and logistically difficult infrastructure for overhead wires that would power them, Johnson said.
Nearly all big shovels at iron mines in the state, which scoop rock for haulers that transport it to crushers, are electric, Johnson said. Large rock crushers, which are “energy hogs,” are also fully electric, Johnson said.
Like other mining companies that have gone electric, Padilla said Twin Metals has made the switch to both reduce emissions and improve working conditions.
“The entire underground fleet will be electrified which really both creates a much better worker environment because there will be no diesel emissions underground.”
What kind of cut to carbon emissions will this bring?
Twin Metals estimates its electric vehicle fleet would reduce onsite greenhouse gas emissions — produced by things like vehicles, heating and blasting — by 65 percent. In total, Twin Metals expected its carbon emissions output, before the EV fleet, to be roughly 75,644 tons per year. Now they project 27,507 tons of emissions.
That does not count emissions tied to the electric grid for power, however. Mines are typically energy hungry.
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, an anti-mine advocacy group, contends the Twin Metals project would result in more than 1 million tons of carbon emissions per year over its 20-year life, based on data they said comes from initial company estimates. Twin Metals says based on an average Midwestern power grid, the company projects it will emit roughly 261,315 tons of carbon emissions per year. Padilla said environmental regulators, and the company’s evolving mine plans, will help determine more definitive emission estimates during the review process.
But for scale, the transportation sector in Minnesota produced more than 40 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2016.
Padilla also said the company hopes to make strides on carbon emissions from the electric grid. Twin Metals has not signed a supply agreement with a power utility, making plans speculative, but Padilla said they hope to use only renewable energy at the mine site. How they would do that is still unclear. Minnesota Power, the main utility in the region, has said it plans to provide carbon-free energy by 2050 and be coal free by 2035.
Padilla said Antofagasta, the Chilean parent company of Twin Metals, is transitioning all of its mines to renewable energy by 2022 and plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. “It could be a combination of possibilities, including just greater acquisition of renewable energy from a power provider than they’re giving to the general public,” Padilla said. “It could also be a combination of on-site (generation) possibilities or utilizing other technologies as we move forward.”
Padilla also said the company is working on grant funding to try to pump carbon into their tailings to sequester it, “which could make us a carbon-neutral project or potentially a carbon sink.”
What else has Twin Metals done to try to make its mine plan greener?
Twin Metals has faced stringent opposition from environmental groups and skepticism from federal regulators and most Democrats in Minnesota, a state with a DFL governor whose Cabinet members are responsible for major permits for the project.
In turn, Twin Metals has made a point of trying to make its potential mine friendlier to the environment.
In 2019, Twin Metals scrapped plans for a large tailings basin — mining waste covered by water in a pond held back by a dam — further away from the BWCA that opponents said could be vulnerable to catastrophic collapse. They instead hope to squelch water from the tailings and store them in a large stack next to Birch Lake with consistency similar to sand-castle sand.
This method isn’t widely used and has its environmental upsides and downsides. For instance, some anti-mine groups said moving the tailings closer to water that flows into the BWCA was actually a downgrade in safety for the wilderness area.
Still, the EV pledge continues Twin Metals’ efforts to make and promote environmental upgrades at the mine.
From the start, the company has said the metals like copper, nickel and cobalt it would mine are needed for a green economy, from solar panels to EVs. There are warnings of shortages already for materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel used in EV batteries.
Mine opponents argue those important metals can come from recycling or from mining in less water-rich environments away from wilderness areas. It’s also not yet known how much of what Twin Metals mines would end up in the U.S., or used for green technology.
“We haven’t signed any contracts; we’re obviously very early in the process about where our concentrate and our metals would go,” Padilla said. “But we’ve located capacity in the western U.S. and Canada and Mexico so we want to be able to keep it at least within our country and within our allied nations related to these metals.”
Padilla said technology exists to take nickel and cobalt concentrate directly to a battery manufacturer, “so there’s an opportunity for this state to really move forward with an economy in the region that can directly take those metals and produce electric vehicle batteries.”
“We’re working with a number of partners on that right now.”
Will this win over skeptical environmental groups?
Water pollution remains a major concern for environmental groups, said Tom Landwehr, executive director of the Save the Boundary Waters campaign and former commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Sulfide mining, such as copper-nickel projects, can result in acidic runoff and pollution of waterways with heavy metals or mercury. The Twin Metals mine would sit a few miles from the BWCA and on a waterway that flows into the wilderness area. Sulfide mines have a historically poor track record with water pollution, though Twin Metals contends it can meet state standards for pollution thanks to modern mining technology and the composition of the rock in the area.
Landwehr said there are other environmental risks posed by the mine, and said the company’s pledge to use electric vehicles is “green washing” because the company’s fleet would only represent a segment of their overall emissions.
“The amount of energy that’s required to run that mine is going to be greater than the city of Duluth and that is going to be coming from existing energy sources,” Landwehr said, including, potentially, some coal. Minnesota Power says one taconite mine owned by U.S. Steel in northern Minnesota can need as much power as the city of Minneapolis.
Landwehr also said nearly two square miles of forest land will be destroyed for the mine, which he said poses a risk of bringing in invasive species near the BWCA and gets rid of trees that absorb carbon emissions.
“It’s an attempt to really mask this enormous environmental impact they’re going to have by this mine and not just an impact while they’re operating, but an impact into perpetuity because they’re going to be putting these tailings on top of the ground and leaving them there forever,” Landwehr said.
When could this mine be built?
The road to a fully operational mine is long and uncertain. The company has experienced both a series of setbacks and wins since submitting a plan to state and federal regulators in December 2019, one that was a decade in the making.
The DNR is currently in the first stages of an environmental review of the mine. Before construction begins, Twin Metals will need a series of state permits, such as air quality and water pollution permits, from different agencies.
Since Twin Metals seeks to build the mine in the Superior National Forest, the company needs federal approvals, too. Former President Barack Obama’s administration denied two key mineral leases held by Twin Metals, but they were later renewed by the Trump administration. In March 2021, the Interior and Agriculture departments under the Biden administration began reviewing the leases again. The heads of both departments are opposed to copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters. But as of May, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack said the White House had still not made a decision on the mining project. According to Reuters, Biden is interested in sourcing the bulk of metals for electric vehicles from allied countries but processing them domestically for battery parts.
Oppositional groups have tried twice to invalidate the two federal mineral rights leases reinstated by the Trump administration. In May, a federal judge ruled that evidence brought forth by opponents of the mine would not have changed the court’s decision to uphold the leases.
Even if approved by state and federal regulators, Padilla said the earliest the mine could be operating is likely by the end of the decade.