Minnesota and mining are a good mix

Minnesota owes it to the world to do more mining here.

The Star Tribune addressed the mining issue — and its importance to the next governor and Department of Natural Resources commissioner — in the recent editorial “Next governor faces tests on mining” (Nov. 17). There is no question that the new DNR commissioner should not be learning about mining on the job. He or she needs to understand that the economic impact domestically, and the environmental impact globally, of mining critical nonferrous metals in Minnesota would be very positive.

In addition to the iron that Minnesota already produces, the state’s mineral resource reserves have the potential of providing a domestic supply of nonferrous metals that Americans use every day — nickel, copper, gold, platinum and palladium — in cell phones, computers, catalytic converters, electric cars, wind turbines and medical devices. The domestic and global demand for both ferrous and nonferrous minerals is a given; there is no way to curb demand significantly.

The Labovitz School of Business and Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth, in 2009, estimated that mining is a nearly $3.2 billion annual economic engine for the state. Yet the school estimates the potential total at $8.7 billion if we expand to nonferrous mining.

The consequences of not mining here, and instead relying on foreign sources, would be detrimental not only to the domestic economy but also to the global environment.

Minnesota has some of the best environmental protections and uses the most advanced mining techniques on Earth, while other nations that supply nonferrous metals (most notably China and Russia) are among the worst environmental offenders.

In terms of the environmental standards that we have in place, the mining industry considers Minnesota one of the most difficult places for development. The review and permitting process is costly and time-consuming. Case in point: For the PolyMet Mining Corp., which was mentioned in the Star Tribune’s editorial, the process for a proposed copper and nickel mine near Babbitt has so far cost the company more than $20 million and has taken over five years. Indeed, the stringency of our review process has resulted in delays now pushing estimated commencement of mining to at least 2013.

Moreover, based on our state’s recent history with mining, Minnesotans can be confident that the best mining practices will be deployed for operations in our state, using the cleanest processing technology ever seen in the history of mining anywhere in the world. Problems of the past, such as acid run-off, are now well-understood and completely preventable with technology that has been proven elsewhere. Environmental impact can be minimized with modern techniques, such as processing ore with autoclaves instead of smelters, instituting progressive reclamation of mine lands, limiting surface impact and using GPS technology to control mine operations.

That said, we should not discount environmental concerns. The state should consider establishing an umbrella insurance coverage plan — privately administered and funded by the mining companies, not taxpayers –for the unlikely event of a mining catastrophe. We should be confident that the resources will be in place if a problem should arise, especially after a mining operation has ceased to exist and therefore cannot remedy a problem that it has created.

Beyond simply being able to understand mining issues, the new DNR commissioner should be committed to approving new mining activities in our state.

There’s actually no better way to act locally and think globally.

Kent Kaiser is a faculty member at Northwestern College in St. Paul and is a Center of the American Experiment senior fellow. Additional information on mining and other natural-resource issues can be found in the center’s newly released report containing 24 recommendations for Minnesota’s new governor and Legislature. It can be found at www.AmericanExperiment.org.

This commentary originally appeared in the Star Tribune on November 26, 2010.
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