The Biden administration killed another domestic mining project in the largest copper and nickel find in the world, by revoking a Clean Water Act permit, previously granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the mineral-rich Duluth Complex of northeastern Minnesota. The government claims that the permit did not comply with the water quality standards set by a sovereign downstream tribe, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The minerals are needed for the production of electric vehicles and their batteries, which is a part of Biden’s climate agenda. The political decision will make the United States more reliant on China, which lacks environmental and labor standards and uses minerals sourced by child labor. China dominates the battery chain for electric vehicles providing 80 percent of the processed minerals. The Biden administration’s decision highlights the need for permitting reform to limit lawsuits and modernize the permitting process.
- The Biden Administration’s latest action against mineral mines in the United States is the revocation of a permit for a large copper/nickel deposit in Northeastern Minnesota.
- Adverse decisions regarding U.S. mining projects by the Biden administration comes at the same time that it is seeking to transition the U.S. energy system to “green” technologies highly dependent on them.
- China is the world’s predominant supplier of critical minerals and Biden’s actions will increase that dominance.
- The United States is 4 times more dependent upon China’s minerals and their processing than it was on the Middle East at the peak of its oil dependency.
The Corps said NewRange Copper Nickel, formerly known as Polymet, can submit a new permit application with modifications to the project to make it comply with the tribe’s water quality requirements. However, according to the Corps’ decision memo, it would be difficult for the company to successfully address all the issues raised by the tribe and the Environmental Protection Agency. NewRange is considering its options as some other key permits also are tied up in legal challenges.
The water quality permit is one of three major permits issued to the company four years ago that are on hold due to legal challenges. The others are the project’s overall permit to mine and a federal wetlands permit that allows the project to take about 900 acres of wetlands in exchange for paying to restore wetlands elsewhere in the area. The permits are needed for construction of the $1 billion project that will also produce platinum-group metals.
The Corps initially awarded the mine its Clean Water Act permit in 2019, stating that the project complied with all applicable federal laws and regulations. However, it suspended the permit on March 17, 2021 at the request of the Biden Environmental Protection Agency so that the EPA, in response to a court ruling, could study the effects downstream on both the Band’s reservation and the Wisconsin waters of the St. Louis River, which forms a part of the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. The Corps held a public hearing in May of 2022 on whether the permit should be reissued, revoked or modified.
According to tribal officials, the mine would violate the tribe’s water quality regulations, which are stricter than the state’s standards, particularly for mercury and some other pollutants. The tribe claims its higher standards are needed to protect the fish and wild rice that are important parts of its members’ diets and culture and the Biden EPA agreed, leading to the permit’s revocation.
According to the owner, however, the mining project would result in net reductions of sulfate and mercury levels in the St. Louis River system because of it will clean up an old iron mining waste pond at the processing plant site. In fact, the project shows that through its proposed water treatment and management processes, it will remove more than 1,400 tons of sulfate per year from the St. Louis River system, the result of historic iron ore mining operations. The entire region has a storied past in mining, with the region supplying 70 percent of the iron ore used during World War II when the United States was the “arsenal of Democracy,” supplying the free world with armaments to fight the Axis powers. There were few environmental regulations at that time, however.
The project will also lead to a net reduction in pre-existing mercury loading to the river system. The company owner also pointed out that the mine site is more than 100 miles upstream from the reservation.
Other Biden Administration Decisions Against Critical Mineral Mines
The Biden Administration continues its assault on critical mineral mining projects, despite its claim to want to develop a domestic mineral mining industry. In 2022, the Biden administration canceled the leases that date back to the 1960s of the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely, Minnesota. The mine would have produced copper, nickel and cobalt in the Duluth Complex within the Superior National Forest, where 95 percent of the nation’s nickel reserves and 88 percent of American cobalt reserves are found. In January, Biden’s Department of the Interior blocked the mine overstated concerns about the safety of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness inside the national forest, even though the mine would be outside. Biden’s Interior Department withdrew more than 225,000 acres of the Superior National Forest from consideration for mining operations for 20 years, ensuring the Twin Metals project’s demise for the foreseeable future.
Ioneer Ltd.’s lithium mine in Nevada, which could supply 22,000 metric tons of lithium annually, is being held captive by environmentalists, who claim the mine threatens Tiehm’s buckwheat, a rare flowering plant. The Trump Interior Department had refuted that after an extensive analysis, indicating that the culprit of the buckwheat was hungry squirrels. Despite that analysis, environmentalists asked the Biden administration to list the buckwheat as an endangered species, and Biden regulators subsequently proposed a listing to that effect.
The Resolution copper mine in Oak Flat, Arizona, which can meet about 25 percent of U.S. copper demand, is under federal environmental review. In March 2021, the federal government rescinded its approval for the copper mine days before it was to transfer thousands of acres of federal land for the project. The land could have been handed over under a congressionally approved swap in which the federal government would have traded 2,422 acres of land to Resolution Copper in exchange for 5,459 acres of other lands in southeast Arizona. The U.S. Forest Service recently told a federal court it is not sure when it could approve a land swap to develop the Resolution Copper mine in Arizona.
The Rosemont copper mine in the northern Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona received a setback when Federal regulators rejected its mining company’s request to reduce critical habitat for jaguars deemed endangered on land that overlaps the footprint of the proposed mine. Hudbay Minerals Inc. has been working for more than a decade to get permission to open the mine. The mine only needs about 6 percent of the land that had been excluded for the jaguars in order for the project to proceed.
The Pebble copper and gold mine, 100 miles from Bristol Bay, Alaska had its permit application rejected in November 2020 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and it was resubmitted it in January 2021. However, President Biden’s EPA, citing its authority under the 1972 Clean Water Act, proposed a legal determination that would ban the disposal of mining waste rock in the Bristol Bay watershed. The proposal would create permanent protections for the waters and wildlife of Bristol Bay, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. It would prohibit disposing of mine-related waste within 308 square miles around the site of the proposed Pebble Mine project, an area about four times as large as Washington, DC, much of it owned by the State of Alaska.
Biden regulators suspended a right-of-way for a road in Alaska that had a 50-year right-of-way, covering 25 miles of a proposed 211-mile road connecting the Ambler Mining District to Alaska’s highway system. Biden’s Department of Interior determined that the effects the proposed Ambler Road might have on subsistence uses were not properly evaluated previously and that tribes were not adequately consulted prior to issuing the right-of-way, despite seven years of such evaluations and consultations. Biden‘s Interior Department requested a remand to have time to supplement the administrative record and it was granted by the U.S. District Court. Since then, the Interior has held public comments, is drafting a supplemental environmental impact statement, and studying preliminary comments. The federal agency says it will issue its final decision on the proposed project in the fourth quarter of 2023.
The Biden administration is cutting off access to domestic supplies of the raw materials needed to make the energy transition he wants happen and making the United States more dependent on China for these critical minerals. It is doing so by canceling mine leases, revoking permits, and classifying plants as endangered. The United States needs the critical mineral deposits to achieve Biden’s climate plan. However, Biden appears to be comfortable with the United States becoming more dependent upon China for the minerals despite its lax environmental standards and child and indigenous labor issues. One would think the national security implications of this would be evident to someone in the Administration with China’s growing aggressiveness and pledge to displace the United States as the number one world power. The U.S. dependency on China for minerals is 4 times greater than the dependency the United States had on oil from the Middle East.