Sulfide mining debate continues, despite lack of need

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

It feels like it’s been forever that international corporations have planned sulfide mines for northeast Minnesota. Maybe it’s taking long enough that it will become clear to everyone that we don’t need the minerals, especially not for the clean energy projects the corporations claim the mines are for.

 Last month, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) announced it would maintain its decision to grant an air quality permit for the PolyMet copper-nickel sulfide mine, despite evidence that PolyMet intends to construct a larger mine than it originally told regulators. The mine, proposed to be built near Hoyt Lakes, would be the first of its kind in Minnesota and would threaten Minnesota’s waters and Lake Superior for centuries if constructed.

As MinnPost’s Walker Orenstein reports, the project faces several more decision points and lawsuits this year. While environmental groups and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa continue to resist this mine in court, state agencies have been accommodating  PolyMet throughout the process. 

Meanwhile, Twin Metals, the other major sulfide ore mine proposal in Minnesota, faces stronger headwinds. The Biden Administration has begun the process of seeking a 20-year ban on sulfide mining on federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters, a watershed threatened by Twin Metals. However,this is not a permanent end to this threat.

Natural spaces and resources are core to our identity as Minnesotans, so it should come as no surprise that the backers of both mines claim that this type of mining isn’t just good for their economic interests, but somehow beneficial for the environment. Both mining companies claim that through new technology, they can achieve the unprecedented feat of conducting sulfide mining without polluting the surrounding watersheds. PolyMet even claims that its efforts will leave the site better than the company found it.

These claims don’t hold water, of course. These mines would destroy vast swaths of wetlands, which are among the most valuable tools we have to sequester carbon and fight climate change. Their construction and operation would generate significant emissions, regardless of Twin Metals’ claim (with no guarantee) that it would use an electric vehicle fleet to dig minerals near Ely.

Even absent a spill, PolyMet’s own proposal acknowledges that maintenance of the toxic waste site they leave behind would last 200 years or more – a timespan that will likely dwarf the existence of the company, leaving future Minnesotans to pick up the bill. And a spill from either mine would cause devastation in some of the largest freshwater resources on the planet.

Because of the weakness of those arguments, sulfide mining backers have taken to greenwashing another way: by claiming that Minnesota and the United States need the copper, nickel, and other metals they would dig up in order to facilitate the green energy transition. It’s true that this transition will require a lot of copper for turbines, transmission lines, electric vehicles, and more. But are Minnesota mines like PolyMet specifically needed to help meet these needs?

MEP member Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy analyzed that question and showed that the answer is “no.” Between the other sources of copper at existing mines, the potential to increase U.S. copper recycling from the present level of 33%, and the advent of alternatives to copper in areas like plumbing, PolyMet has no significant value to world copper markets or our green transition. Copper is widely available, with a large amount going into or already sitting in U.S. landfills. It’s certainly nowhere near rare enough to justify PolyMet, a mine that would strip massive swaths of Minnesota land to reach sparse minerals underneath it.

The most valuable natural resource in Minnesota isn’t something to be mined: it’s the freshwater ecosystems of the land of 10,000 lakes. With a majority of Minnesota waters already considered impaired, and waters around the world becoming more vulnerable due to pollution and climate change, we can’t afford to risk these resources, or to threaten the health and livelihoods of Indigenous and other downstream communities.

Our 2022 priorities focus on climate, environmental justice

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

In late November, the MEP team including members, staff, and our Board of Directors finalized our coalition’s 2022 Collaborative Priorities. This document will help set MEP’s strategy for the 2022 legislative session and our communications throughout the year. 

The Collaborative Priorities are informed by the things that MEP runs on: science, our values, and our member organizations’ work. MEP’s vision statement expresses our hope that Minnesota will put people and planet first, and that’s reflected in the policies and investments we propose.

The document reflects one of the core understandings of our coalition: that we face multiple intersecting crises that must all be solved. Minnesotans have seen climate impacts – like wildfire smoke and December thunderstorms – more than ever before during 2021. Our Pollution Control Agency now recognizes most of our state’s waters as being impaired, with broad swaths of the state devoid of waters that are fishable or swimmable. And our environmental challenges don’t affect the state evenly: communities of color and low-income areas are especially vulnerable to and harmed by pollution and climate change.

Our top shared priorities

In 2019, MEP members selected the climate crisis as our keystone issue – without a healthy climate, none of our other challenges can be solved. Minnesota needs a unified plan to address how to achieve a net-zero economy by 2040. Most of the proposals put forth or supported by MEP have this in mind, addressing the core greenhouse gas emission sources of transportation, agriculture, electricity, and buildings. MEP will continue to speak out against Line 3, the newly built Enbridge pipeline that will generate more annual carbon emissions than Minnesota’s entire economy.

As we work to solve the climate crisis and related problems, we also recognize that our institutions are too often failing to provide solutions, or actively making the problem worse by siding with polluters. Our state agencies are meant to safeguard the people of our state. Their approval of projects like Line 3 or the PolyMet sulfide mine exemplifies how our regulatory system has been captured by corporations. It’s resulted in a pattern of treating corporations as clients, failing to act in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, and disregarding harms to Indigenous communities. MEP will continue developing plans to make these institutions more accountable and people-centered.

Building on previous sessions and our work on lead testing in 2021, MEP will advocate for investments and policies that protect Minnesotans and our natural spaces from lead. Lead is one of the most potent and common neurotoxins harming Minnesotans, as our work in Duluth has demonstrated, with communities of color especially impacted. It’s also frequently found in fish, mammals, and birds, poisoning our food chain due to lead tackle, ammunition, and other sources. MEP will continue seeking investments to replace lead water pipes and policies to prohibit the use of lead in hunting and fishing.

We see opportunities for the Legislature to invest significant funds in cutting emissions, repairing and upgrading water infrastructure, and restoring our natural systems. MEP and partners will advocate for bonding dollars for climate, equity, water, and other issues. We’ll also continue to support Minnesota’s dedicated environmental funding, including the reauthorization of the Minnesota Lottery funds for natural resources and reforms to make the funding stream more equitable.

And as we’ve done each year, MEP will continue using our voice to support our members’ policy priorities. 

How we’ll push forward

As we do each session, MEP will directly lobby the Legislature on these priorities, activating our network of engaged Minnesotans to push their lawmakers to act. As with the last several years, the divided Capitol presents obstacles to progress, but that doesn’t mean we can’t move forward in key areas, especially given the state’s historically large anticipated budget surplus. Last session, MEP and our allies successfully advocated for a clean Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund bill, preventing it from being tied to a rollback to the Clean Cars rule.

MEP will continue to focus much of our work on persuading the Walz Admininistration to champion Minnesota’s future and give support to our priorities. We’re encouraged that the Governor named climate as one area that state surplus dollars should invest in. Governor Walz should use his opportunity to lead on climate this year, especially in light of his record outlined in the climate report card that MEP signed last year.

Looking forward, MEP will also help provide Minnesotans with the tools they need to hold lawmakers accountable and change the conversation at the Capitol. We’ll soon be releasing our Caucus hub, which will provide Minnesotans information on how to influence their political parties and elections through their precinct caucuses and beyond. We’ll also share platform resolutions championed by our members to help educate Minnesotans and improve party positions. At a time when our democracy is on shaky ground, shoring up these foundations is critical.

Our agenda – to protect the future of our state and our world – is broad and ambitious, but it is achievable. Minnesotans shouldn’t settle for anything less than bold action.

MEP works to dispel myth of ethanol as a climate solution

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, December 6, MEP and 20 allied organizations called on the Minnesota House of Representatives to fix a problem that is deeply entrenched in Minnesota’s policies, economy, and landscape: the predominance of corn based ethanol. In our letter to key House committee chairs, we asked them to begin a transition away from Minnesota’s 35-year-long focus on growing corn for ethanol in favor of solutions that clean up our transportation, protect land and water, and support the livelihoods of farmers.

Ethanol was once considered a promising and less-polluting alternative to gasoline – a renewable fuel, even, given that it  can be refined from crops like corn and sugar. But ethanol is seldomly used as a fuel by itself, but rather mixed into gasoline. All gasoline sold in Minnesota is at least 10% ethanol, a mixture that generates only about 3% less emissions than regular gas when used to fuel a car. E-15 is about another 2% reduction.

While it’s true that ethanol production generates about 40% lower carbon emissions than gasoline over the course of its lifecycle, that doesn’t make it a “green” alternative. In order to meet our climate needs, we need to reach zero net emissions by 2050, the sooner the better.. We have far better prospects for cleaning up transportation by investing in transit, building up pedestrian and walking infrastructure, planning more efficient land use, supporting electric vehicles and biofuels with dramatically lower carbon intensity levels. 

Even if corn based ethanol scored better on greenhouse gas emissions, the artificially increased market for corn that ethanol subsidies have created is another reason that business as usual won’t work for our environment and climate. Minnesota is the nation’s fourth-largest state for corn production, and more than thirty percent of that corn is used to make ethanol. We use 8 million acres – about 14% of our entire land area – on corn production. That’s produced profits for some farms and agribusinesses, but it’s all devastated the waters and lands of our state.

Corn is an input- and water-heavy crop, and those inputs result in damage to the surrounding environment. Phosphorus from fertilizer runoff has impaired thousands of Minnesota lakes and nitrates flow into streams, as well as waters downriver from us in other states and all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrate pollution has also made a dizzying number of rural wells unsafe to drink. Pesticides have wreaked havoc on our ecosystems. And conventional plowing and cropping systems have reduced the quality of our soil.

Not every crop grown for fuel is so destructive. As we wrote recently, the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota is currently breeding winter camelina and other crops that can provide relatively clean fuel, protect and restore water quality, and even provide habitat for pollinators. In the long run, these crops will provide a far better return on investment for Minnesota if we work to scale them up.

Corn ethanol isn’t the primary driver of climate change – but we shouldn’t treat it like a cure for what ails us. We’ve asked the legislature to recognize this reality, break ethanol’s decadeslong hold on our state, and oppose an E-15 mandate and further investments in ethanol.

As we move on from ethanol, however, we have to make sure that farmers receive full state support during the transition. In the short run, any significant change to our farming systems can be costly. But the current system is hurting farmers now, leaving farm families subject to agribusiness monopoly power and price structures for corn that are frequently stacked against them. 

In the long run, rural communities and Minnesota’s entire economy will benefit from a greater variety of cleaner crops. As with fossil fuels, we can see a future beyond corn ethanol – and it’s a bright one.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

DNR comment period on mining near BWCA ends December 8th

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Five days left to make a difference for the BWCA: The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is currently accepting public comments on regulations that will play a key role in the future of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the Rainy River Watershed. Minnesota’s nonferrous mining rules – covering mining ores other than iron – will help determine whether proposed sulfide ore mining projects can be built within the watershed.

The Biden Administration recently moved toward instating a moratorium on sulfide mining on federal lands near the BWCA, but that move would not cover state lands in the Boundary Waters watershed, making these rules no less important.

The most visible project that would be impacted by updated rules is the Twin Metals copper-nickel sulfide mine, proposed to be built near Ely. But future mines in the same area would also be affected, or stopped, if the rules are strong. And there’s no reason they shouldn’t be: federal law prohibits degradation of the water quality in the Boundary Waters. Minnesota has a responsibility to ensure that protection is a reality, not just a goal. 

The original nonferrous mining rules were created nearly 30 years ago, and the science hasn’t gotten rosier on the impact of sulfide mining on watersheds. No such mine has ever operated in the United States without significant, often permanent damage to the surrounding environment through toxic acid drainage.

Twin Metals, like the PolyMet mine proposed near Hoyt Lakes, has promised to use advanced technology to protect Minnesota waters, but has offered scant proof that it will work. Even in the absence of water pollution, this type of mining is energy- and land-intensive and would result in significant climate damage.

Making northern Minnesota a test case for new mining techniques is a dangerous proposition. The Boundary Waters hydrology is extremely interconnected, and extremely vulnerable to the acidic pollution of sulfide ore waste. Pollution at Twin Metals would not be contained at Twin Metals. A large spill could devastate one of the world’s largest freshwater resources and deal a massive blow to the region’s economy.

For all these reasons, it’s important that Minnesotans make their voices heard on these rule changes. Adequate protections by the state could completely prohibit sulfide mining in the Rainy River watershed, securing the Boundary Waters against this new threat. But given the recent history of state agencies when it comes to sulfide mining, it’s vital that the DNR hears loud and clear that Minnesotans want the rules to be proactive.

The comment period ends on December 8th. We encourage all concerned individuals – whether in Minnesota or outside the state – to submit comments in support of stronger rules by that date on the official DNR comment site, or by using this link from the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. You can use information from MEP’s blogs or from member organizations like the CampaignFriends of the Boundary Waters, or the Sierra Club.

In the long term, a key goal of our coalition is to see all of northern Minnesota’s waters and Lake Superior protected from sulfide mining, through protections like the Prove it First bill and the Boundary Waters Protection Bill. Given the threats our waters already face, we can’t afford to let unproven mines owned by unethical corporations put these vital resources in jeopardy.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Infrastructure bill delivers on key environmental priorities

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, bipartisan (IIJA) legislation that will invest more than $1.2 trillion in the engineered systems that the U.S. economy is built on. The Act is one of the biggest victories for clean water and clean transportation in Minnesota in recent history. While most of the dollars going to Minnesota will fund repair for roads and bridges, a significant portion will go toward investments that help us fix our pressing environmental challenges.

Transportation is Minnesota’s largest sector for carbon emissions, and the Infrastructure Act targets those emissions from multiple angles. Part of the solution is reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by providing alternatives to driving, most notably transit and bike/walk infrastructure. Minnesota transit systems will be able to access more than $800 million from this legislation over the next five years. That money can’t be used for operational costs, but it can be used to develop the infrastructure needed to ensure high-quality, convenient transit service that will make it easier for Minnesotans to avoid driving.

Minnesota is also on track to receive $68 million in electric vehicle charging investments – and possibly more in grant funding – from  IIJA. Closing the gaps in our existing charging network will be key to electrifying our remaining corridors, encouraging Minnesotans to replace fossil fueled vehicles with electric models. Electric vehicles have historically been criticized as a poor fit for Minnesota’s climate, but new technology, the Clean Cars standards, and an expanded charging network will help change the story. If Norway – a country similar in population but larger in size than Minnesota – has been able to transition to nearly 80% of its new vehicle sales now being electric, Minnesota can do it too. 

Finally, while not a direct investment in climate emissions reductions, the more than $100 million slated for broadband internet service in Minnesota can have positive environmental effects, allowing for more and better telecommuting and economic development not based on extractive industries like mining. For those reasons, MEP has supported broadband investments to close the internet access gap within Minnesota.

The story for protecting our water is a great success as well: the Infrastructure Act invests $680 million in upgrading Minnesota’s sewer and drinking water infrastructure to improve safety and protect our natural resouces. MEP’s work has shone a spotlight on the threat of lead poisoning from water pipes in cities like Duluth, and this funding can make real progress towards eliminating that problem.

While not a climate solution in itself, the Act’s $20 million for protection against extreme climate events like wildfires will form a key part of our response to the crisis, and an additional $3.5 million in weatherization will cut energy usage while making Minnesota housing more livable and resilient.

Now that the Infrastructure Act has passed, MEP and partners are hopeful that it will be followed by further much-needed investments in climate emissions reductions, such as those in the ambitious Build Back Better agenda. The 2020s are the critical decade for climate action, and the most responsible thing we can do as a nation is to go as big as we can on protecting our planet’s future.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

List of impaired waters keeps growing in Minnesota

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Earlier this week, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency added more than 300 stretches of water to Minnesota’s impaired waters list. Each lake, stream, or river included on this list is considered to be impaired by failing to meet environmental standards for beneficial uses, including drinking water, aquatic habitat, fishing, or swimming. The pollutants causing these impairments vary, but they’ve added up to a disturbing fact: the majority of waters in Minnesota are now on that list.

Given the trends that MEP has closely followed for years, the continual increase in the impaired waters list is not surprising. In fact, the MPCA may be undercounting the waters that are impaired – recognizing that adding a body of water to the list can be a complex process that the agency and environmental groups work on for years. Even as some point sources of pollution like industrial facilities are shut down, new pollutants emerge. Currently, there is not an adequately regulatory framework to address them, so waters suffer more and more pollution.

Mercury is a classic example, and one of the largest sources of impairment in Minnesota waters. In the present day, Minnesota industries have greatly decreased the amount of mercury they release into the environment, though coal plants elsewhere in the country continue to deposit the toxic chemicals into our lakes, blown in on the wind. But there’s a significant amount of mercury in the river bottom in places like the St. Louis River estuary near Duluth.

As an MEP-commissioned report showed last year, industries like mining continue to release sulfate into the water. Sulfate reacts with mercury in the water to cause it to move up the food chain through fish and other aquatic life. This mercury bioaccumulates, meaning that it becomes more concentrated and more harmful the further up the food chain it goes, resulting in a health threat to humans who eat the fish. Sulfate also threatens production of wild rice, a significant problem especially for Ojibwe communities. The state has not yet adequately protected our waters from sulfate, but has begun recognizing sulfate concentrations that are dangerous to wild rice in its impaired waters list – especially after the EPA stepped in earlier this year.

PFOS is another emerging pollutant that is now being taken into account, resulting in the addition of 15 waters to the MPCA’s list. This forever chemical – a substance that does not break down naturally in the environment – is used in industry, firefighting, and consumer goods like Scotchguard. It has been recognized for years as a threat to humans and wildlife as a risk factor for kidney disease, cancers, and other conditions as our scientific understanding has evolved. Small amounts of PFOS are present in the blood of almost every person in the United States, though fortunately, concentrations have been decreasing over time. The lower St. Croix River between Minnesota and Wisconsin is one notable location deemed impaired due to PFOS contamination.

The EPA has announced that it will develop national drinking water standards for PFOS, while the European Union has banned almost all uses of it since 2006. It is no longer commonly produced in the United States. Minnesota has also passed a limited ban on PFOS’s fellow forever chemical, the cancer-causing chemical PFAS, in food packaging, and settled an $850 million lawsuit with 3M over the company’s pollution of East Metro water supplies. Pressure is building for companies to continue replacing and phasing out these forever chemicals.

Meanwhile, older and more widely-known pollutants continue to impair Minnesota’s waters, most visibly nutrient runoff in streams, rivers, and lakes. Vast swaths of waters in southern Minnesota are especially impaired by phosphorus. The primary source of this pollutant is from crop fertilizer, though sewage systems also play a role.

Excess phosphorus fertilizer spread on crops ends up running off of farm fields and into lakes and rivers, where it causes algal blooms. These algae decay, consuming the oxygen in the aquatic habitat and rendering it inhospitable for fish and other life. These blooms can also result in bacteria that are harmful or even deadly to people and wildlife.

Fortunately, fertilizer pollution is a problem with known solutions. By introducing “clean water crops” and cover crops to farmland, phosphorus use can be reduced and mitigated, protecting the waters downstream and maintaining the health of the soil. Employed in the right areas, these and other techniques can go a long way toward healing Minnesota waterways.

Minnesota’s “Land of 10,000 Lakes” nickname and our position at the headwaters of the Mississippi and Lake Superior mean that what happens here flows downstream. We have a responsibility to treat our impaired waters list as a call to action, not just as a tally of disappointments.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Winter camelina shows promise to restore farmland, fight climate change

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Comparison of runoff filtered through soil planted with clean water crops

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Earlier this fall, a number of farmers in Minnesota and other Upper Midwest states began introducing a new seed to their fields on 1000 acres of farmland. That’s a tiny area compared with the approximately 16 million acres of row crop lands in the state. But the seeding of the new crop – winter camelina – represents a new chapter in the history of farming in Minnesota, and hopefully the entire Midwest.

Winter camelina has been bred by the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, a team dedicated to developing useful, marketable crops that improve the land and water around them and help to combat climate change. MEP has supported greater Legislative funding for Forever Green for nine years, helping to secure a cumulative $13 million in state funding, and we hope to continue growing this work. As we chart a new course for agriculture in the face of climate change and water and soil challenges, Forever Green is one of the best investments we can make.

Camelina isn’t quite as far along the commercialization process as the perennial grain Kernza®, another crop that Forever Green researchers focus on. But scientists and agronomists believe that if scaled up, camelina can be integral to the national economy and a big boost to water quality and ecosystems in Minnesota. 

Unlike the presently dominant row crops such as corn and soybeans, camelina requires little watering and very low levels of fertilizer. It is planted and begins sprouting in the fall, stays dormant through the winter, and is ready for harvest by June. That allows it to be planted in the same fields without disrupting the summer growing season. 

Early spring is a particularly bad time for nutrient pollution from fertilizer to infiltrate streams and groundwater, as well as a time when the soil is especially likely to erode. Having camelina roots in the soil from October to June dramatically reduces this nutrient problem and staves off erosion.

Pollinators also enjoy significant benefits. Because of pesticides and row crop monoculture, Minnesota’s farmlands are normally desertlike in their hostility to pollinating species. But camelina’s spring blooms produce food and habitat for pollinators, giving them a fighting chance at the beginning of their active season.

Along with the immediate environmental benefits of simply growing camelina, the crop’s potential applications in food and industry are great news for climate action. Camelina seeds are 36-45 percent oil, which can be used in food, biodegradable plastics, and even fuel. Aviation is a particularly difficult source of carbon emissions to solve, and it has been estimated that using jet fuel made from camelina emits 84% less greenhouse gases than petroleum-based fuel. 

Bringing this crop up to scale and onto more farmland is a no-brainer, but there are challenges that must be overcome. Existing processing infrastructure and markets are geared toward the dominant ethanol crops, not camelina. New facilities, market systems, and resources for farmers will require support from both the private and public sectors.

When the Minnesota Legislature meets again in February, MEP will be there with our partners to make the case for Forever Green and efforts to support Minnesota farmers, water, and habitat. We don’t have to wait around for miracles – we have the seeds of a new green revolution growing right here in Minnesota.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

All eyes on world leaders as climate summit begins

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

During this week, the members of the G20 – an organization of 19 of the world’s wealthiest countries and the European Union – have been meeting in Rome in advance of the United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland that begins tomorrow. The commitments and actions of the G20, who account for three-quarters of global emissions, and the other countries represented will make the difference in our planet’s future. With science clearly showing that time is short for cutting global greenhouse gas emissions at the scale we need, the eyes of the world are on Glasgow.

That includes the eyes of Minnesotans, who will be well represented by climate action leaders at the summit. Organizations with delegates to COP26 include the University of Minnesota, Macalester College, and the Science Museum of Minnesota, as well as MEP members Climate Generation: A Will Steger LegacyInstitute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Our state is fortunate to have these organizations representing us in Scotland, especially given our unique connections to the climate crisis. Minnesota is one of the fastest-warming states in the nation, and we’re seeing challenges to wildlife, agriculture, and public health as average temperatures rise. The heat waves, drought, and wildfires of the past year have been an especially visible sign of this crisis. They exacerbated the environmental health disparities that exist in our state, where communities of color frequently suffer higher summer temperatures than white neighborhoods.

Minnesota also sits at the nexus of one of the greatest threats to a livable climate: the fossil fuel infrastructure that snake across our state, such as Enbridge’s newly constructed Line 3. Line 3 has faced fierce resistance from our communities on the grounds of its harms to water, its trampling of the rights of Indigenous people, and its catastrophic impact on the climate (this report from ABC’s Nightline is a good overview.) What happens in Minnesota matters to the world.

Minnesota and the United States broadly have a responsibility to deliver on climate action promises, and quickly. The U.S. has done more to worsen the climate crisis than any other country, though our emissions have since been eclipsed by China (which exceeds our population by over a billion people.) Promises by themselves aren’t enough. Without action to back them up, world leaders will not only move toward climate catastrophe, but will worsen a very concerning crisis of faith among young people.

A recent international survey by Bath University found that the vast majority of people between the ages of 16 and 25 feel highly worried about climate change. They’ve grown up seeing warning after warning from scientists for decades, warnings that successive governments have ignored or procrastinated on. It’s contributed to the fact that less than a third of people in this age range believe that governments can be trusted – an understandable position in the face of inaction.

If nothing else, these numbers tell a story about the true public views on climate change. Another recent survey by the Associated Press that found that most Americans supported – and only 16% opposed – measures to cut emissions from electricity by shifting from coal and gas to renewable sources. Contrary to the dominant narrative, there is no major constituency for inaction on climate change – other than fossil fuel companies like Enbridge and Koch Industries.

The nations meeting in Glasgow this week will have the chance to not only do the right thing, but the popular thing, by firmly committing to the bold climate action we need. A swift reorganization of our economies to cut emissions from transportation, agriculture, electricity, and buildings isn’t a radical concept – it’s exactly what the world wants and needs.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Biden Administration move could save Boundary Waters from sulfide mining

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Wednesday, October 20, the Biden Administration announced that it would resume federal efforts to seek a 20-year ban on sulfide mining on federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Thanks to advocacy from Minnesotans, organizations, and courageous lawmakers including Congresswoman Betty McCollum and Senator Tina Smith, this move – resuming efforts begun during the Obama Administration – could protect this natural treasure and vital water resource for years to come.

In a reversal of the Trump Administration’s support for sulfide mines, including the proposed Twin Metals mine, the federal government plans to begin by restarting a two-year study on its possible impacts on the watershed and surrounding communities. The Interior Department could then implement what’s known as a mineral withdrawal, which prevents further mining leases and development on the land.

This ban would be a major obstacle for Twin Metals, possibly preventing the mine from commencing. The company, a subsidiary of international conglomerate Antofagasta, still holds mineral permits near Ely, but those are currently being litigated. The results of the scientific study could help clean water advocates to make the case for the permits’ cancellation.

This move toward a mineral withdrawal is unequivocally a win for clean water in Minnesota. Sulfide mining has never yet been conducted anywhere in the state, and has an abysmal track record when it comes to pollution – no sulfide mine has operated anywhere in the country without significant, possibly permanent damage to the surrounding environment. The length of time that the mine would produce jobs and economic activity in the region is miniscule compared to the amount of time that present and future Minnesotans will have to spend treating the site of the mine for pollution.

When the waste from sulfide ore is exposed water and air, it produces sulfuric acid, producing acid mine drainage when it enters an aquatic environment. This drainage is highly corrosive and toxic and severely damages surrounding ecosystems. Because the Boundary Waters is so interconnected, a spill into part of the watershed could cause devastation to water and wildlife, as well as to the people who live in or visit the area. Weather events exacerbated by climate change make such a spill even more likely. And the Twin Metals mine and other mines like it would result in the destruction of numerous acres of forests and wetlands, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and worsening our environment’s ability to absorb emissions.

For all these reasons and more, MEP and our allies have been working for years to protect Minnesota for the impacts of sulfide mining from projects like Twin Metals and PolyMet, a similar mine proposal near Hoyt Lakes. Like Twin Metals, PolyMet threatens a major, vulnerable watershed: the basin of the St. Louis River, Lake Superior’s largest U.S. tributary. Likewise, PolyMet faces headwinds: its permits are repeatedly being suspended or overturned in the courts after facing legal challenges from tribal and environmental advocates.

It’s important to understand that Twin Metals and PolyMet may be two separate mines in two separate watersheds, but the connection between them is that the greenlighting of one would help pave the way for the other by setting a harmful precedent. And on the flip side, shedding light on the scientific facts about Twin Metals could help better establish the dangers in the minds of Minnesotans and in state and federal agencies.

In the long run, Minnesota’s best defense against sulfide mining pollution requires addressing the danger of these mining plans individually and of this type of mining in general. That’s the basis for the Prove it First proposal advanced by MEP, our allied organizations, and many Minnesota legislators. If Prove it First were enacted into law, it would prevent Minnesota for being a guinea pig for the purported “new technology” that PolyMet and Twin Metals claim they would use to successfully protect water. The law would require that a sulfide mine operate elsewhere in the United States for ten years without causing pollution, then be closed for ten more years without causing pollution, before such mining could be attempted in Minnesota.

The safe closure of the mines and storage of waste is particularly important. Even if a mine somehow did not pollute the surrounding water during its limited operating lifespan, it would require indefinite maintenance and treatment to deal with the aftermath – as in centuries or millenia. Given the track records of Antofagasta and PolyMet owner Glencore, we can’t trust that they would stick around to foot the bill for even a few years after shutting down a mine.

The Biden Administration has made the right call when it comes to securing the Boundary Waters watershed for current and future generations. We hope to see state and federal leaders continue to pay attention to the science on sulfide mining, and take strong steps to make sure the land of 10,000 lakes is protected.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Regenerative crops are rapidly becoming a reality

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Don Wyse, University of Minnesota

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Minnesota is home to the 5th-largest agricultural sector in the nation. About half of the state’s farming income comes from crop agriculture, of which corn and soybeans are the dominant products. Corn is especially prevalent – Minnesota is the fourth-largest producer in the nation and is home to more than a dozen ethanol plants.

Unfortunately, these dominant crops and the ways they are typically farmed have consequences for the air above us and the water below us. Corn is an input-heavy crop, requiring significant applications of fertilizer and pesticides, which seep into the soil and groundwater and run off into ditches and streams. Its roots don’t grow very deep and store little carbon in the soil. And the tillage that occurs on many fields results in degradation of the soil, a significant threat to the health and viability of Minnesota farmland and dramatic loss of soil carbon. Soybeans and other major summer annual crops present similar challenges.

All these problems are exacerbated by climate change, which in turn has been worsened by emissions from agriculture, one of the state’s three largest sectors for greenhouse gases. It’s one of the greatest obstacles to effective climate action in Minnesota, but it’s also one of our great opportunities to cut and absorb emissions.

The replacement of almost 18 million acres of Minnesota prairie with row crops created plenty of food, but it wiped out the “ecosystem services” that the prairie provided – carbon sequestration, soil renewal, clean water, flood protection, and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Given Minnesota’s struggles with water pollution, declining pollinators, depleted soil, and climate change, we need a change. To that end, a network of scientists, business leaders, legislators, and environmental advocates have worked to support the development of crops that can provide some of those services, primarily through the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota. MEP and our allies have been strong supporters and long term leaders in promoting this effort and of critical funding for Forever Green at the Legislature.

Right now, our efforts are literally bearing fruit, or in this case, grain.

A few months ago, we covered a field tour of Forever Green led by MEP and Friends of the Mississippi River, and we’re glad to report that the crops we shared with lawmakers and industries are making waves, and in some cases, making it to the shelves.

One of the most visible crops that Forever Green focuses on breeding is Kernza©, a perennial wheatgrass initially developed by the Land Institute in Kansas. Unlike corn and soybeans, Kernza® plants remain in the soil for at least several years, and build massive root systems that can grow 10 feet deep or more. Because of those roots, Kernza® does a great job at holding together soil in the face of heavy rains and floods (illustrated by the top photo in this article), can help keep groundwater clean, and is highly drought-resistant compared with the most prevalent crops. It also increases carbon storage in the soil.

Today, Kernza© isn’t a pipe dream – products made with the perennial wheatgrass are making their way to supermarket shelves. Companies like General Mills and Perennial Pantry are now buying the grain and offering consumer products. Whole Foods has conducted a limited release of a cereal made with Kernza®. The Washington Post covered the crop’s commercial in depth this past week.

The challenge for Forever Green and for Minnesota will be scaling up Kernza® and other promising clean water crops like pennycress, hybrid hazelnuts, and winter camelina. Each crop has different characteristics and advantages, but all show promise for commercial viability – if policymakers help support the emerging market for them and the farmers who want to give them a try. Business as usual isn’t working for our people or planet, but with the right steps forward, we can feed ourselves and restore our natural resources with a new revolution in farming.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.