Anti-Mining Group Is Wrong About Minnesota’s Mineral Wealth

The following article was originally published in the September 29, 2018 edition of the Grand Rapids Herald Review.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) recently wrote an editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune arguing Minnesota’s titanium, copper, nickel and platinum deposits are low-grade and economically risky to develop. If these resources were truly valuable, so they argued, the deposits would have been developed decades ago.

However, this argument could not be more wrong because it ignores the profound role that technological breakthroughs and changing market conditions play in transforming resources that were once considered uneconomical into powerful engines for regional economies. History is full of such examples.

In fact, a perfect example occurred right here, in Minnesota.

In 1945, there was fear on Minnesota’s Iron Range that the demands of building the tanks, battleships and airplanes that propelled America to victory in World War II had depleted the vast iron deposits of the region. This left thousands of miners, and their families, wondering what they would do next.

Then, Dr. E.W. Davis of the University of Minnesota School of Mines, along with other scientists and engineers, developed a technology that transformed taconite, a rock that was once considered low-grade waste material, into an economically viable source of iron ore. This technology turned taconite into the primary source of iron ore in the United States and saved Minnesota’s iron mining industry.

In a similar vein, new technology was recently developed at the University of Minnesota Duluth to process Minnesota’s massive titanium deposits, which once contained too many impurities to be economical, into useable titanium used to make white pigments in paint and prosthetic limbs.

The United States imports 91 percent of the titanium it uses. Developing Minnesota’s titanium deposits will make our country less dependent on foreign countries while also creating high-paying jobs for hardworking Minnesotans.

Minnesota’s copper, nickel and platinum deposits are the largest undeveloped resources in the world. While the ore grades for these deposits — the percentage of usable metal contained in rocks — were low compared to other copper mining areas in the 1940s, ore grades have been falling around the world for decades because mining companies have already mined higher grade deposits. Companies are now developing mineral deposits that have lower grades relative to historic mines.

This means Minnesota’s ore grades of 0.3 percent copper are now globally competitive. In fact, they are about the same grade as copper mines operating throughout North America. Changing market conditions mean it’s finally time to develop Minnesota’s resources, and environmentally responsible mining will be a tremendous boon to our economy.

According to a new report on mining from Center of the American Experiment — where I work — titled Unearthing Prosperity, environmentally responsible mining Minnesota’s copper, nickel and titanium resources will add $3.7 billion to Minnesota’s economy every year and create more than 8,500 jobs. These numbers were obtained using the economic modeling software IMPLAN, considered to be the gold standard in the industry.

We knew our report would be attacked or mischaracterized by groups that oppose mining, which is why we were very conservative in our estimates. We only examined the impact of mining projects in the preliminary planning or permitting stages and had filed reports that meet the strict regulations of the Canadian stock exchange. This means we did not estimate the tremendous economic potential of developing the Mesaba deposit, which is the largest deposit of copper and nickel in Minnesota.

Minnesotans deserve to know the truth about the economic impact of mining in their state, but MCEA did the public a disservice by refusing to acknowledge the important role that advances in technology and changing market conditions play in determining the viability of a mining project.

Minnesota has a long and storied history of ingenuity and perseverance in the mining industry, regardless of whether staff attorneys would prefer to pretend otherwise.

Isaac Orr ([email protected]) is a policy fellow at Center of the American Experiment.