The Biden administration blocked plans for a major copper, nickel and cobalt mine in northern Minnesota that could have helped supply minerals for his “net-zero” plans. The “Twin Metals Project” would have tapped 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. Biden’s Department of the Interior blocked the nearly $3 billion mine over stated concerns about the safety of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness inside the national forest. Interior 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. The agency’s decision to block the project is a major step backward for American mineral independence and a major win for China since the United States is currently dependent on China for its critical minerals. The Biden administration is even shopping in neighboring Canada for critical minerals rather than developing the industry domestically.
President Biden’s Department of the Interior stonewalled efforts at effective oversight of the agency’s decisions surrounding the Twin Metals project. In May last year, the department demanded thousands of dollars to release records on an earlier decision to cancel leases. While the department eventually waived the fee, it has not complied with the public transparency law.
A report from the Brookings Institute published last fall warned about the severe vulnerability presented in mineral supply chains by an overreliance on overseas adversaries. Despite wanting to ramp up the use of carbon-free energy technologies that require critical minerals, the Biden administration has been slow to reform U.S. regulations governing mining. According to Brookings, nearly 70 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where workers often operate in sub-human conditions with child labor. The Chinese have out-invested every global competitor in the Congolese mines. The Chinese have also investing heavily in Indonesia, which has more than 30 percent of the world’s nickel.
Last year, House Republicans launched an investigation into Hunter Biden’s involvement with the sale of a Congolese cobalt mine to a Chinese company in 2016. That mine was originally owned by American companies.
About a month ago, Biden signed an agreement to fund mining projects in Chinese-owned mines in the Congo, where over 40,000 children work as slaves in forced labor and inhumane conditions with no environmental protections. In a memorandum of understanding, the State Department pledged to help build an EV battery supply chain in Congo and Zambia, E&E News reported. The department and other U.S. agencies will offer technical assistance to the two countries, cooperate on feasibility studies and explore opportunities in the sector for U.S. companies. The United States is helping foreign mines while stopping them here.
Twin Metals Mine Background
The leases sought by Twin Metals date back to the 1960s in an area outside the Boundary Waters wilderness but within its watershed. Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) renewed the leases in 1984, and Twin Metals Mining sought an additional 10-year renewal after it acquired the leases in 2012. In 2016, the Obama administration’s Interior Department advised the BLM to not renew the leases amid the possibility of a mining ban in the region. The Trump administration later reversed course by issuing a legal opinion declaring the leases valid and extending them for 10 years.
In 2021, the Biden administration began a review of the potential impacts of mining on the “natural and cultural resources” of the area and placed a two-year pause on new leasing. The following year, Interior canceled the Twin Metals leases, arguing that the Trump-era decision had contained “significant legal deficiencies.” The Twin Metals mining company is suing the Biden administration, calling its actions unlawful and contradictory to the nation’s need for “clean” energy. According to Twin Metals, “Our plan is backed by decades of exploration and analysis and is rooted in the most environmentally sophisticated design, which is tailored for our project location and mineral deposit. It deserves a fair evaluation by federal regulators based on its merits.”
Other mining projects in Minnesota, Arizona, Nevada and Alaska have been stuck in permitting delays and lawsuits from environmentalists. Unfortunately, Interior’s Superior National Forest withdrawal sets a precedent that could expedite the process of blocking other mining projects. The Superior National Forest withdrawal acts as anti-permitting reform because it precludes the need for environmental reviews required for permits that are usually followed by lengthy lawsuits.
This situation should put the Biden administration in a dilemma because of Biden’s goals to reduce 50 to 52 percent of greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. Without these critical minerals, manufacturing of electric vehicles that use 3 times more copper than a gasoline automobile, and wind and solar units would be dependent on autocratic countries such as China and Russia for critical minerals. Further, the proliferation of electric vehicles will be delayed as the EV tax credit qualifications of the Inflation reduction Act require an increasing share of the battery minerals extracted and refined in the United States or a country with which the United States has a free-trade agreement. Precluding mines in the United States simply shifts investment and jobs to foreign shores and places those nations in the driver’s seat of our energy future.
If critical minerals are not mined in the United States, they will be extracted in countries with far less stringent environmental and labor standards. As noted above, the State Department recently pledged to help build EV battery supply chains in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia. Zambia is the world’s sixth-largest copper producer.
U.S. copper production, currently 1.2 million metric tons a year, has been dropping because the nation’s largest mine, the Morenci in Arizona, is declining and may be exhausted in 20 years. A proposed Resolution mine, 60 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona, would produce an estimated 40 billion pounds of copper over 40 years if allowed to go forward. According to S&P Global, the United States could be importing two-thirds of its copper by 2035. Relying on other countries might not be a good strategy because copper-rich countries like Peru and Chile are also struggling to produce more as a result of political turmoil and growing opposition to mining. Goldman Sachs predicts that global demand for copper will top supplies by 2025.
The Biden administration is cutting off access to domestic supplies of the raw materials needed to make the energy transition happen and making the United States more dependent on China and other autocratic countries for these critical minerals. The United States needs the copper, nickel, and cobalt in the Twin Metals mineral deposit to achieve Biden’s climate plan. Instead of placing the mine off-limits for two decades, the administration could have performed an environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act to examine the specifics of Twin Metal’s proposed mining project to determine whether the deposit could have been developed in a way that would have ensured environmental protection of the Boundary Waters Area Watershed. The mining company insists that it could develop the mine without affecting the nearby waters.
The Biden administration is pursuing an anti-permitting reform strategy that is detrimental to the American public and use of our natural resources. The withdrawal from the Superior National Forest can result in a precedent that favors the environmental movement’s emotional objection to extractive activities over American needs. While the Biden administration is removing traditional energy fuels from production on public lands, it is also ensuring that critical minerals needed for the new energy transition they say they support cannot be mined in the United States. Biden is allowing China and Russia to dominate future energy supplies and thus damage U.S. national security.