Balancing Act Between Environmental Protection and Need for Critical Minerals for Clean Energy Continues

Balancing Act Between Environmental Protection and Need for Critical Minerals for Clean Energy Continues

The Biden administration has withdrawn some 225,000 acres of national forest land in northern Minnesota from mineral leasing, protecting a swath of the watershed that adjoins the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The decision follows a 16-month review on whether the minerals lying under Superior National Forest should be open to extraction. The Department of the Interior concluded the land should be protected for 20 years, the maximum possible without congressional approval.

Thunder Lake in Minnesota

In a study released in 2022, the U.S. Forest Service concluded that hard-rock mining on the land risked contaminating the Boundary Waters, even with mitigation measures in place. Superior National Forest is part of the Rainy River watershed, which flows into the Boundary Waters. It is also part of land ceded in an 1854 treaty by Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, and members of these bands retained rights to hunt, fish, and gather on these lands.

The decision highlights some of the challenges that are emerging as the Biden administration tries to transition America to electric vehicles. The administration has said it wants to make the supply chains for batteries more resilient by sourcing minerals inside North America. But that desire could bring its own potential for environmental damage and infringement of the rights of Indigenous Americans.

The nation’s transition to clean energy, including increased production and use of solar photovoltaic plants, electric vehicles (“EV”), and wind farms, requires a greater use of certain critical minerals, including copper, manganese, lithium, nickel, graphite, and rare earth elements. Batteries used in EVs and energy storage require lithium, cobalt, manganese, and graphite.

In 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order expanding production of domestic critical minerals to reduce the U.S.’ vulnerability to supply disruptions. The order came on the heels of a report from the U.S. Geological Survey assessing the state of critical minerals and concluding that 20 out of the 23 critical minerals the nation relies on come from foreign sources.

Transitioning to a clean energy economy will require considering opportunities and costs of decisions to minimize impacts. Alternatives to mining new areas could include improving the circular economy by recycling, reusing, and extending the life of current materials and products. In addition, it will be important to evaluate ways to ensure that new mining is sustainable and happens only in the lowest-risk areas. In the case of the Boundary Waters, the latest decision will allow 20 years to make such assessments.

Photo Credit
briandjan607, Flickr
June 15, 2023