US critical minerals push: Can it be done responsibly?

A view of Lake Superior at Grand Portage, Minnesota, US
A view of Lake Superior at Grand Portage, Minnesota, US [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]
A view of Lake Superior at Grand Portage, Minnesota, US [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Reporting for this story was made possible, in part, by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

On the St Louis River near Duluth, Minnesota – Terry Perrault says he is trying to bring back what once was.

Perrault and his colleagues in the natural resources department of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa are trying to restore a key food and cultural staple in the St Louis River, a major tributary of Lake Superior.

Wild rice – "manoomin" in the Ojibwe language – is sacred to Indigenous people in the Great Lakes region of North America, and it is coming back after painstaking efforts to reseed these waters in the northern United States.

"All these bays had rice in all of them," says Perrault, wearing a green t-shirt and jeans as he looks out from a boat onto the bay on a warm day in June.

Over his left shoulder, orange netting encircles a bed of wild rice to protect the still-growing grasses against geese. Harvesting is still several weeks away, and Perrault says the blades can sometimes get to be as high as 1.8-metres (six-feet) tall.

Terry Perrault, lead technician in the natural resources department at Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, speaks about wild rice from a boat on the St Louis River, Minnesota, US
Perrault speaks about the importance of wild rice to the community [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

"It was here," Perrault says of the wild rice, which in addition to its cultural importance, provides food security and economic benefits for the community while also enriching soils and preventing erosion.

"We know it was here, so we're just trying to put it back for everybody else [to] get to see what was lost a long time ago."

'Critical watershed'

Wild rice beds surrounded by orange netting to protect them against geese, in the St Louis River, Minnesota, US
Wild rice beds surrounded by orange netting to protect them against geese, in the St Louis River, Minnesota, US [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]
Wild rice beds surrounded by orange netting to protect them against geese, in the St Louis River, Minnesota, US [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Wild rice is just one of many things in this corner of northeastern Minnesota that is dependent on a healthy Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world.

Spanning Minnesota, as well as Wisconsin, Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario, Lake Superior is the largest of the five Great Lakes, which together provide drinking water to tens of millions of people across the US and Canada.

These days, a push to get more so-called "critical minerals" to power the US green energy transition is also playing out on the shores of the lake, as companies seek new opportunities to mine nickel, cobalt and other materials needed for a range of new technologies, including electric vehicles (EVs).

Fourteen mines currently operate in the Lake Superior basin, the US and Canadian governments said in a joint report (PDF) last year, including the US's only primary nickel mine, located in Michigan. Additionally, "exploration and proposed mining continues within the watershed in northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Ontario", the report said.

One of the most recent proposals is an underground nickel mine near the town of Tamarack, 88km (55 miles) west of Duluth, from a company that has a deal to provide Tesla with 74.8 million kilogrammes (165 million pounds) of materials needed for EVs over six years.

The projects have spurred sometimes heated debates and, like many mining projects before them, raised concerns around possible harm to water and air quality, and infringements on Indigenous rights. For some, the question has become: Is the water-rich Great Lakes region the best setting for the US shift towards renewables?

Lake Superior alone holds 10 percent of the globe's freshwater supplies, it feeds the St Louis River, and its watershed is home to hundreds of fish species and wildlife. And the effects of long-closed mining operations in the wider Great Lakes region are still being felt today, fuelling fears that new projects could be damaging, too.

"We have critical mineral needs. We also have [a] critical watershed," said Nancy Langston, a distinguished professor of environmental history at Michigan Technological University, located on Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

"It's absolutely essential that we protect clean water at the same time as we reduce our dependence on other nations [for critical minerals], such as Chile for lithium or [Russia] for nickel, [and] cobalt largely from the Congo," Langston told Al Jazeera.

Reliant on imports

Mine workers talk 6780 ft (2066 m) underground in the Resolution Copper exploratory mine shaft in Arizona, US
Mine workers talk underground in the Resolution Copper exploratory mine shaft 10 in Superior, Arizona, in 2021 [File: Caitlin O'Hara/Reuters]
Mine workers talk underground in the Resolution Copper exploratory mine shaft 10 in Superior, Arizona, in 2021 [File: Caitlin O'Hara/Reuters]

Boosting the United States's domestic production and processing capacity for critical minerals has been a central plank of President Joe Biden's climate strategy.

From nickel to cobalt, lithium, aluminium and zinc, "critical minerals" are defined in the Energy Act of 2020 as non-fuel minerals that have been deemed "essential to the economic or national security of the US and which has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption". Copper, which is not on Washington's list of critical minerals, is nevertheless important for electricity production and has been designated a critical mineral in Canada and a strategic raw material in Europe.

"The predictions are that for some of these minerals, we're going to need two to four times as much as we produce right now by 2040," said Melissa Barbanell, director of US-international engagement at the World Resources Institute, a research non-profit.

"But for minerals like lithium, which really is about EV batteries, the prediction is that we're going to need 40 times as much," she told Al Jazeera. "So, it's really a significant increase in the amount of materials we're going to need to power our economy going forward."

Of the 50 commodities listed as critical minerals in the US in 2022, the country was 100 percent "net import reliant" for 12 of them and more than 50 percent net import reliant for another 31, according to the US Geological Survey (PDF). China – the US's main geopolitical rival – was the top producer of 30 of the 50 critical minerals on the American list.

"These minerals power phones and computers, household appliances, electric vehicles and batteries, solar panels, wind turbines and so much more," Biden said in February of last year, as he gathered business, political and local leaders to lay out his plan to boost US supply chains. "And without these minerals, we simply cannot function."

As part of his push, the Biden administration has announced billions of dollars in funding for clean energy and related infrastructure, including through the Inflation Reduction Act. The law – touted by Washington as the "most significant climate legislation in US history" – offers tax credits and other incentives to firms looking to manufacture components for EVs, as well as solar and wind energy, in the country.

The US government also reached a deal with Japan in March to cooperate on critical mineral supply chains – including allowing Japanese-sourced materials to have access to some US tax credits for EVs – and it is considering similar agreements with other allies, notably the European Union.

Former US President Donald Trump also pushed "to reduce the nation's vulnerability to disruptions in the supply of critical minerals" by promoting new mining and processing opportunities. The Trump administration's policy fell in line with its wider "America First" strategy and its adversarial position towards China: In October 2020, Trump declared a national emergency, saying the US reliance on "foreign adversaries" – a reference to Beijing - for critical minerals constituted an "unusual and extraordinary threat".

For years, China has been the world's largest producer of rare earth elements – one category of critical minerals, which are used in EVs and wind turbines – and in 2022 and into this year, it accounted for 70 percent of global production and 90 percent of processing, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The US imported 78 percent of its rare earth supplies from China between 2017 and 2020, the US Geological Survey said (PDF) last year.

Beijing is also a processing powerhouse, accounting for more than 50 percent of all cobalt, lithium and graphite processing in 2022, and being one of the world’s top three processors for copper and nickel, the IEA found (PDF).

"China controls most of the global market in these minerals," Biden said in February of last year. "And the fact [is] that we can't build a future that's 'Made in America' if we ourselves are dependent on China for the materials that power the products of today and tomorrow."

'Bring life back'

A view of part of the NorthMet mine site in northeast Minnesota, US
A view of what would be part of the NorthMet mine site in northeast Minnesota, US [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]
A view of part of the NorthMet mine site in northeast Minnesota, US [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

About 112km (70 miles) north of the Minnesota city of Duluth, on the edge of an historical mining region known as the "Iron Range", Minnesota State Representative Dave Lislegard stands on a dirt path that the NewRange Copper Nickel mining company says will one day be part of a sprawling, critical minerals facility.

The Minnesota state legislator is unequivocal about what opening a new mine here would do: "This is an opportunity to bring life back" to a region that has grappled with economic hardships and unemployment due to the boom-and-bust of iron ore mining, he says, donning a green hard hat and sunglasses on a windy June afternoon.

For Lislegard, a Democrat who grew up in the nearby town of Embarrass, Minnesota, and now lives just a few kilometres away in Aurora, mining runs in the family: His grandfather helped build the Erie Mining Company, which operated a former taconite iron ore mine in the area. And both Lislegard and his father worked there before the operation was shut down in the early 2000s, he says.

"I've been trying to educate others about the importance of this industry – what it means, not only to this region, but to the world," Lislegard told reporters earlier in the day from a conference room at NewRange's administrative headquarters down the road.

Minnesota legislator Dave Lislegard speaks during a tour of the proposed NorthMet mine in northern Minnesota, US
Lislegard speaks during a tour of the proposed NorthMet mine in northeast Minnesota, US [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

"I'm here to tell you that I believe that we can mine safely, we can mine in an environmentally friendly way," he said.

The project – located in the watershed of the St Louis River, which flows into Lake Superior – "would be Minnesota's first copper-nickel-precious metals mine and only the second nickel producing mine in the US", according to NewRange, which was formed by a recent joint venture deal between PolyMet Mining Corp in Minnesota and Canada-based Teck Resources Limited.

The plan is to develop the so-called NorthMet project – which is expected to extract 225 million tonnes of ore over 20 years, yielding primarily copper and nickel, but also cobalt, palladium and platinum/gold (PDF). The company also wants to explore development options for a nearby deposit known as Mesaba. The deposits would be mined by "conventional open pit methods", the company says on its website, and would "account for approximately one-half of the known copper-nickel mineral resources in the Duluth Complex in northern Minnesota".

"We have ore here that would be multigenerational between the two deposits," Christie Kearney, NewRange's social, environmental and regulatory affairs director, said during the June tour of the site alongside Lislegard.

The company says NorthMet will bring as many as 1,000 direct and spin-off jobs, and more than $500m in benefits each year, to an area that has struggled economically. It also has argued that by building a copper-nickel mine on a site where iron ore was previously extracted, NewRange is helping to clean up a so-called brownfield – the term used to describe an area that is underused or abandoned due to perceived or real contaminants linked to extractive industries.

A map showing the proposed NorthMet mining project in northern Minnesota, US
A map showing an overview of the proposed NorthMet mining project, in the NewRange office in northern Minnesota [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Lislegard, a major proponent of the project, says it needs to happen sooner rather than later. "What I get afraid of is, delay, delay, delay," he says. "We have the ability. Are we going to do it? Or are we just going to sit back and say, 'You know what, we'll let the Congo, we'll let China, we'll let everybody else do it.'

"The moment for this region, this state and this country – for this project – is right now."

Indigenous sovereignty

A view of Lake Superior at Wisconsin Point, Wisconsin, US
A view of Lake Superior in June 2023 [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]
A view of Lake Superior in June 2023 [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Yet despite the company's assurances that its operations will meet and exceed both state and federal environmental requirements, the proposed mine has drawn staunch opposition from environmentalists and Indigenous community leaders.

"We have gone on extensive record – literally thousands of pages of highly detailed, technical comments, analyses, documents – that laid out our concerns about this project," said Nancy Schuldt, water projects coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Indigenous community whose reservation sits about 128km (80 miles) downstream from the proposed site.

Their concerns stretch "across the gamut from the cumulative effects to treaty-protected resources, to the failure to examine less environmentally damaging alternatives ... to a lack of sufficient modelling or prediction of indirect wetland impacts", Schuldt told Al Jazeera.

In early June, the US Army Corps of Engineers revoked a key permit that had been issued for the NorthMet project, saying the company had failed to meet Fond du Lac's water-quality standards (PDF).

Fond du Lac is one of approximately 50 Indigenous tribes in the US whose water-quality standards are recognised under the Clean Water Act. And its case marked the first time a tribe had exerted its rights as a "downstream state" to challenge a federal permit.

"It was made abundantly clear here just how powerful it can be to have this kind of federally delegated environmental authority. Because without it, we would not have had the unique legal standing to make the case that we did," said Schuldt, adding that protecting local waters "has long been a priority".

"The Fond du Lac reservation is in such a water-rich environment and the water resources are so vital to the community, to the culture. We have wild rice waters, we have fisheries resources, we have abundant wetlands," she said.

Fond du Lac Chairman Kevin R Dupuis Sr also said the Army Corps had upheld the US's promises to the community, including those made in an 1854 treaty (PDF) in which the Chippewa of Lake Superior ceded their territory to the government.

That included a pledge that the Fond du Lac reservation "would provide a permanent homeland for our people forever", Dupuis said in a statement, and that the community would be able to "exercise its hunting, fishing and gathering rights" within the lands that were ceded.

"Despite these solemn promises by the United States, our reservation and our ceded territory lands have been under attack from pollution for decades. Today's [Army Corps] decision protects the rights and resources promised to us under the treaty," he said.

For its part, NewRange – which can re-apply for the permit that was revoked – has said it is weighing its next steps. "It's a setback for us," Kearney said in June. "We are evaluating the decision of the Corps and the recommendations by both [the US Environmental Protection Agency] and Fond du Lac and we're looking at what that means for us for options to get that permit back.

"Because we do need that permit to be able to construct that project."

'Approach this differently'

Processing equipment is seen at the Rio Tinto borates mine in Boron, California
Processing equipment is seen at a Rio Tinto borates mine in Boron, California, in 2019 [File: Patrick T Fallon/Reuters]
Processing equipment is seen at a Rio Tinto borates mine in Boron, California, in 2019 [File: Patrick T Fallon/Reuters]

As the future of the NorthMet project remains unclear, debates continue across the United States around how the nation can power its push to renewables, while also ensuring that environmental standards and Indigenous rights are upheld.

Critical minerals have a role to play as the country moves to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, said Amanda Klasing, national director of government relations and advocacy at Amnesty International USA. But she told Al Jazeera that the government must apply "consistent, human rights principles" to avoid replicating the same harms witnessed in fossil fuel-related extraction projects.

In the past, such projects – including oil and gas pipelines – have been linked to increased rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls and police crackdowns on environmental defenders, among other things.

"There's an opportunity to approach this differently," Klasing said.

"Just because something has the ultimate goal of addressing a very real human rights imperative – to invest in renewables – the actual process should be treated the same as any business investment: There has to be human rights principles that lead community engagement and ensure that communities that are impacted, their rights are at the forefront."

US President Joe Biden speaks during a virtual roundtable about securing the US supply chain for critical minerals
US President Joe Biden speaks during a virtual roundtable on securing critical minerals, at the White House in February 2022 [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

In an emailed statement, the US Department of the Interior told Al Jazeera that new mining for critical mineral production in the country "should adhere to the highest environmental, labor and sustainability requirements".

"As with every decision the Department considers, we will engage with a variety of stakeholders – including Tribal Nations, representatives of labor, impacted communities, and environmental justice leaders – to help ensure critical minerals production is sustainable and responsible," the department said.

It added that the White House also has set up a team of staff from various US government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as others with expertise in mine permitting and environmental law "to identify gaps in statutes and regulations that may need to be updated by Congress".

Those potential updates, the department said, will aim to ensure new projects meet "strong standards" before, during and after a mining project; meaningful community engagement with Indigenous nations, and "opportunities to reduce time, cost, and risk of permitting without compromising strong environmental and consultation benchmarks".

The way forward

Solar panels are set up in the solar farm at the University of California, Merced
Solar panels are set up in a solar farm at the University of California, Merced, in August 2022 [File: Nathan Frandino/Reuters]
Solar panels are set up in a solar farm at the University of California, Merced, in August 2022 [File: Nathan Frandino/Reuters]

Generally speaking, the Biden administration has been supportive of some critical mineral mining projects and less supportive of others, said Barbanell at the World Resources Institute. "It's been a mixed bag," she told Al Jazeera.

For instance, the US government this year imposed a 20-year moratorium on mining near the Boundary Waters, a more than 441,000-hectare (nearly 1.1 million-acre) wilderness area in northeastern Minnesota. "Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy," Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in January.

That move dealt a major blow to a proposed copper and nickel mine by Twin Metals Minnesota – a subsidiary of Chilean copper giant Antofagasta – and drew criticism from Republicans and pro-mining industry advocates who accused the US president of failing to give US mining companies a chance to compete while pursuing a "NIMBY energy policy" – an acronym for, "not in my backyard". "Today is an attack on our way of life," Republican Congressman Pete Stauber of Minnesota said after the moratorium was announced.

INTERACTIVE - What minerals are used in electric vehicles_2-1685964574

At the same time, Barbanell said the Biden administration has set aside funds for EV battery plants and to boost critical mineral processing. She also pointed to a proposed zinc and manganese mining and processing facility in Arizona that recently became the first critical minerals project in the US to gain access to the so-called FAST-41 programme, which aims to streamline and speed up federal reviews.

"There are ways to do it right, and there are ways to not do it right, and I believe in the US we are going to see it done better than in a lot of other places," Barbanell said of the future of critical minerals mining in the US. The mining industry is "very highly regulated", she said, and the country also has a "whole host of environmental laws ... designed to make sure that the activities are protective".

She added that "one thing that could be really beneficial is to do a better job of engaging communities from the planning stage" because that might avoid some pushback and speed up permitting. "If the US is hoping to open up new mines to supply its own minerals, they need to be able to permit projects faster than they do right now."

Indigenous consultation will be particularly important, as most of the US' critical mineral reserves are near their communities: In 2021, Morgan Stanley Capital International found that 97 percent of nickel, 89 percent of copper, 79 percent of lithium and 68 percent of cobalt in the country were located within 56km (35 miles) of Indigenous reservations.

A view of Lake Superior at Wisconsin Point, Wisconsin, US
A view of Lake Superior in June 2023 [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, Langston at Michigan Technological University said it is critical that robust review processes and independent monitoring be in place to ensure any new mining for critical minerals is being done "responsibly".

She also urged decision-makers to look at other ways they can get these minerals beyond mining alone, such as in old mine tailings or in existing batteries. "There are certainly great examples throughout the Lake Superior basin and throughout the Great Lakes of mining companies that are mining really responsibly," she told Al Jazeera.

"It's really important to learn from these positive examples as we try and figure out what's the responsible way to move forward with mineral exploitation in the basin and alternatives to just having more and more and more mines."

Source: Al Jazeera