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Oct 17, 2022

Op-ed: Local View: No need to sacrifice clean water for clean energy

This op-ed was published in the Duluth News Tribune on October 16, 2022

Local View: No need to sacrifice clean water for clean energy 

The severe and virtually permanent harm sulfide mining could cause to clean water calls into serious question whether it has a place in the transition to renewable energy.

A nickel-based electric-vehicle battery can require up to 77 pounds of nickel. Almost five tons of copper go into one wind turbine. Demand for cobalt could outstrip supply by 2025. These are some of the estimates increasingly used to prop up sulfide mining proposals in Minnesota, home to deposits of these so-called “critical minerals” used for renewable energy. Mining companies claim they can supply a safe and reliable source of these raw materials to electric carmakers and other renewable-energy producers.

But at the same time sulfide mining proposals are marketed as “climate action,” the industry remains one of the country’s top polluters , according to the EPA. No sulfide mine has ever succeeded in keeping its acidic pollution out of the environment. Acid mine drainage flows from mine sites long after closure. The bright orange-yellow pollution is often pictured pooled among rocks around abandoned mines in the West or spilled into creeks that run through old coal mines in Appalachia . All evidence suggests acid mine drainage would be an inevitability in water-rich Minnesota, where sulfide mining has never been attempted.

In many ways, the climate crisis is a crisis of water: Too much water falls too fast in some places, prolonged lack of water in the form of droughts wreaks havoc in other regions, and, almost universally, water quality is an issue. Climate-induced temperature changes exacerbate the spread of invasive species, cause more frequent harmful algal blooms, and trigger changes in water chemistry, like acidification. In Minnesota , more frequent heavy rain events overwhelm stormwater infrastructure, and flooding contaminates drinking-water sources. Under a changing climate, access to clean water will be a leading challenge.

There’s no closing Pandora’s box of climate change, and communities across the state are already working to adapt to the associated changes it's causing to water quality and quantity.

Protecting clean water is an indisputable tenet to any worthwhile climate strategy . The severe and virtually permanent harm sulfide mining could cause to clean water calls into serious question whether it has a place in the transition to renewable energy.

This is the part where environmental groups often hear that if they want clean energy, then sulfide mining and its associated pollution are the costs — that you can’t simultaneously oppose mining for critical minerals and support climate action. In other words, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

But neither clean water nor a liveable climate are luxuries; we need both, and we have better options that don’t require us to choose between them.

Fifty years ago, supercomputers on the cutting edge took up the better part of an office and weighed a few tons. Now, an average smartphone packs a thousand times more computing power into a device that fits into a pocket. This almost incomprehensible rate of technological advancement is dazzling the clean-energy world, too, with many emerging technologies aimed at eliminating the need for raw materials that are expensive or difficult to mine responsibly.

Batteries for energy storage exemplify this well, as they’re a main driver of increasing demand projections for problem metals, like nickel and cobalt. As such, researchers are busy inventing new, lower-impact chemistries: Iron-air batteries show promise for grid storage, while sodium-ion and aluminum-ion batteries vie to revolutionize the electric-vehicle market. The materials that go into these technologies are more abundant and easier to source in an environmentally responsible way. We should explore these options further before hastily deciding the metals in high demand today are worth more than clean water.

While new technology holds promise, it’s not a substitute for responsible resource management. Despite the federal government designating minerals like nickel as “ critical ” to domestic energy security, the U.S. continues to waste these resources. Newly mined nickel, copper, and scrap metal are exported in significant volumes for processing and consumption in other countries. Valuable minerals languish in retired electronics sitting in junk drawers across millions of American households — or, if collected, the e-waste is often sent abroad for recycling. Metal is also buried in landfills each day for lack of comprehensive circular resource use policies. A serious commitment to reusing and recycling the mineral reserves already above ground could go a long way toward meeting demand.

We must also remember that metal-demand projections are just that, projections, which are within our power to change. Policies to reduce demand that get at the root of overconsumption will allow us to live lighter — for example, investments in public transit that make it easier for a family to get by with one car or limits on planned obsolescence so we don’t have to replace mineral-intensive products like cellphones and household appliances as often. We should follow the examples of New York state and North Carolina and push our representatives this upcoming legislative session to pass bills supporting a more sustainable and circular economy.

We do not need to accept new sulfide mining and its expected devastating impacts to clean water as a necessary cost of renewable energy. We do not need to trade our energy system’s reliance on one damaging extractive industry for another. In fact, if we do, we will be trading today’s climate crisis for a future crisis of water.

Short-term solutions that create other long-term problems are not the answer. We are better off taking action to improve metal recovery, reduce consumption, and invest in lower-impact climate solutions now — while northern Minnesota’s water is still clean.

Abby Rogerson of Duluth is the Northeastern Minnesota program associate for the St. Paul-based Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (mncenter.org). Rogerson has been leading the research and writing for the center’s “Mining the Climate Crisis” series.