Waves roll in on Lake Superior. (Photo/NPS)
About the author: Nancy Langston is the Distinguished Professor of Environmental History at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Langston is the author of five books, including two on the Great Lakes. She served for six years on the Lake Superior Binational Forum.
By Nancy Langston
In a warming world, clean water is the world’s most precious and vulnerable resource. The choices we make today to protect the Great Lakes are critical, given that the Great Lakes contain nearly 21% of the world’s fresh surface water. Lake Superior, for example, is among the world’s fastest warming lakes, with water temperatures increasing at nearly twice the rate of air temperatures. It’s clear that we must do everything possible to halt emissions of fossil fuels and transition to a clean energy future.
It’s clear that we must do everything possible to halt emissions of fossil fuels and transition to a clean energy future. But what happens when doing so risks the water quality of the Great Lakes?
But what happens when doing so risks the water quality of the Great Lakes? How do we decide between one good—building the renewable infrastructure necessary for a clean energy transition—when it might conflict with another good—minimizing mining and other infrastructure risks to Great Lakes water quality?
Consider the case of energy storage. Renewables such as solar and wind are intermittent, which means that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine when we want that energy. There’s a solution, of course: energy storage, typically in batteries. But batteries require minerals—particularly lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper. A report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) calculates that a concerted effort to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement (stabilizing temperature increases below 2°C) would require quadrupling mineral inputs. Mineral demands for electric vehicles and battery storage alone might grow thirty-fold.
Batteries require minerals—particularly lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper—that would require quadrupling mineral inputs. Mineral demands for electric vehicles and battery storage alone might grow thirty-fold. Where will these minerals come from?
Where Will These Minerals Come From?
Where will these minerals come from? Two-thirds of current cobalt supply now comes from the Congo, where human-rights advocates have raised concerns about child labor and toxic working conditions. Lithium largely comes from Chile, where its mining is creating massive water stress. Nickel is produced in strip mines that have “decimated rainforests in Indonesia and the Philippines,” or else in the enormous Norilsk mine in Russia, whose toxic plumes are visible from space. The only American nickel mine is Michigan’s Eagle Mine, ten miles from Lake Superior, and that is due to close in 2026. Current supply chains for these minerals pose significant security risks, as Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine makes all too clear.
Mining exploration data suggest that significant reserves of nickel, copper, and possibly lithium lie in the upper Great Lakes Basin.
Mining exploration data suggest that significant reserves of nickel, copper, and possibly lithium lie in the upper Great Lakes Basin. The industry argues that quickly extracting these minerals is essential for a clean energy transition, and that means relaxing permitting standards, possibly eliminating National Environmental Policy Act review and public input that can slow the process. Even though Sen. Joe Manchin’s permit reform efforts recently stalled in Congress, pressures to speed permits continue.
Talon Metals is moving forward with exploration for a massive nickel mine in northern Minnesota, 50 miles from Lake Superior, and thealso acquired 400,000 acres of Upper Peninsula lands for mineral exploration it says are “critical for a clean energy transition.”
For example, Talon Metals is moving forward (in partnership with Elon Musk’s Tesla) with exploration for a massive nickel mine in northern Minnesota, 50 miles from Lake Superior. In August 2022, Talon Metals also acquired 400,000 acres of Upper Peninsula lands for mineral exploration, arguing in both cases that these proposed mines will be “critical for a clean energy transition.” Twin Metals, owned by Chilean mining company Antofagasta, is suing the Biden administration for blocking mineral leases necessary for its proposed copper-nickel mine draining into the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness in Minnesota, claiming the administration’s action is “creating energy insecurity.” Tribes, First Nations, and other local citizen groups are increasingly framed as obstructionists blocking the world’s clean energy transition.
How Should We Respond?
How should we respond? What do those of us who love the Great Lakes—and understand that climate change is indeed an existential threat to our shared futures—do to help a clean energy transition, without once again allowing Indigenous territories and the Great Lakes to become sacrifice zones? It’s easy enough to say that we must focus on a just energy transition. But what does that mean in practice? How do we avoid NIMBYism—the “not in my backyard” local protests that often block clean infrastructure projects—without sacrificing water quality?
If environmental history teaches us anything, it teaches us that mining industries don’t protect environments and communities out of the goodness of their corporate hearts. Cleaner mining is possible, but it won’t happen on its own.
If environmental history teaches us anything, it teaches us that mining industries don’t protect environments and communities out of the goodness of their corporate hearts. When unregulated and unrestricted, mining has devastated water and sacrificed Indigenous territories in the name of someone else’s progress. The history of mining in North America is a history of Indigenous communities and watersheds becoming sacrifice zones to feed a growing hunger for minerals and profits. Cleaner mining is possible, but it won’t happen on its own.
Even as we protect ourselves against energy insecurity, we must also protect against water insecurity. This means that we cannot relax environmental standards—but we can streamline permitting.
Prioritizing Energy and Water Security
Even as we protect ourselves against energy insecurity, we must also protect against water insecurity. This means that we cannot relax environmental standards—but we can streamline permitting. Permit delays frequently develop because an industry applicant submits an incomplete application and then blames agencies or locals for the delays. Clearer standards and better permit applications will both help. Permit delays also develop because agencies lack funds to hire adequate staff. The federal infrastructure bill was designed to address those staffing issues.
Most importantly, permit delays develop because affected communities are brought in far too late in the permitting process. Consultation with local communities, particularly Indigenous communities, can’t be a box that agencies and industries check off at the very end. Instead, project planning needs to start with stakeholders, and stakeholders must be able to see that local benefits, not just burdens, flow to them. Free, prior, and informed consent needs to be at the core of project planning.
Most importantly, permit delays develop because affected communities are brought in far too late in the permitting process.
For example, the Batchewana First Nation near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, entered into an agreement as full commercial partner to create the Bow Lake Wind Facility—the largest economic partnership between a First Nation and wind energy developer in Canada. At a recent public meeting on Great Lakes Water Quality, Chief Dean Sayers of the Batchewana First Nation told us that the community chose wind power because they had created their own permitting processes and determined that this particular project met their needs for energy and local social and environmental benefits.
Under the Obama administration, the Bureau of Land Management worked with planners and multiple stakeholders to identify lands ideal for solar development, and lands that should be off limits. Similar efforts could be useful for regional renewable energy planning in the Great Lakes.
To streamline clean energy transitions without sacrificing clean water, we should consider following this Indigenous example, initiating what energy analyst Jesse Jenkins calls “proactive pre-permitting to accelerate decarbonization.” Energy journalists Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis urge regional-scale planning efforts to “harness input from stakeholders, conservation organizations, and developers up front & pre-screen areas to identify zones ideal for development at the scale we need for decarbonization.” Under the Obama administration, the Bureau of Land Management worked with planners and multiple stakeholders to identify lands ideal for solar development, and lands that should be off limits. Similar efforts could be useful for regional renewable energy planning in the Great Lakes.
Core to any project development must be what the Batchewana First Nations community accomplished: “an inclusive participatory planning process to ensure that economic and environmental benefits and burdens from decarbonization are shared equitably.” Only then can we consider streamlining project review in areas that planners and communities agree are priority renewable energy zones.
We need to think more critically about the connection between increased mining and clean energy transitions.
Reuse Abandoned Mines as “Water Batteries”
Finally, we need to think more critically about the connection between increased mining and clean energy transitions. Yes, we will certainly need increased energy storage. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (2020) estimates we’ll need five times our current storage capacity of 23.2 GW. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into more mines. For utility-scale storage, recent research into “water batteries” or PUSH (pumped underground storage hydropower) suggests that abandoned mines can be repurposed into clean energy storage facilities, storing excess renewable energy when it’s produced, then releasing it when it’s needed. The upper Great Lakes region is rich in abandoned mines, and the PUSH researchers identified nearly 1,000 suitable sites across 15 states. These have the potential to supply a significant proportion of the nation’s energy storage needs without the need for new mines.
Clean transportation will continue to require small batteries, because—well, it’s hard to fit an abandoned mine inside the trunk of your car. And yes, we will need to extract minerals for those batteries. But we should start by mining discarded batteries for a significant proportion of those minerals, a process known as recovery and recycling. The Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney calculates that recovery and recycling could reduce demand for energy storage minerals by 25 to 50%. Responsible sourcing and demand reduction strategies will help ease the clean energy transition as well.
Above all, we shouldn’t allow clean water and healthy communities in the Great Lakes to be pitted against effective responses to climate change.
Above all, we shouldn’t allow clean water and healthy communities in the Great Lakes to be pitted against effective responses to climate change. We must reframe the debate by participating in a planning process which protects communities and watersheds now and seven generations into the future.