Dueling studies released within days of each other have performed a valuable public service this election season: putting a spotlight on economic risks and benefits of mining for copper and other precious metals in northeast Minnesota.
Voters not only have a responsibility to learn more about both analyses — one is from a pro-business group and the other from a Harvard economist — but also to push gubernatorial candidates in particular on how they’d manage the arrival of a new and controversial type of mining. “Nonferrous mining” could revitalize the Iron Range, but if not done responsibly, it runs the risk of polluting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and other waterways with acid runoff.
The next governor will appoint the leaders of state agencies playing lead roles in permitting future projects, including the massive Twin Metals Minnesota operation proposed on the BWCA’s edge. Given this type of mining’s enormous upside and downside, it is critical that appointees are committed to rigorous science-driven review and have the fortitude to buck pressure from special-interest groups for or against the new industry.
The new studies outline two sharply contrasting economic pathways to Minnesota’s future. The first, from a Harvard professor and member of President Barack Obama’s White House Council of Economic Advisers, focused on Twin Metals, which is years away from reality.
The professor, James Stock, is a Minnesota native and did the analysis independently. He concludes that the region would see a relatively short-term economic boost from Twin Metals. “Over time, the economic benefits of mining would be outweighed by the negative impact of mining on the recreational industry and on in-migration,” Stock wrote. His caution about the boom-bust cycle for this project has implications for other mining ventures.
The second study, “Unearthing Prosperity,” is from the Twin Cities nonprofit Center of the American Experiment (CAE). The analysis offers a first-of-its-kind look at the potential of all precious minerals found in the region, such as ilmenite, an important ore for titanium. The report draws upon well-known economic modeling software to project that current and future projects would “create 1,902 mining jobs, and support 6,566 jobs throughout the economy.”
Critics have contended that the center’s report did not consider an important downside: the potential loss of tourism jobs. But John Hinderaker, CAE’s president, told an editorial writer the analysis did take tourism into account. “We believe any effect on tourism will be positive. Adding $3.7 billion annually to the state’s economy will boost demand for recreation. Further, there will be more people in northern Minnesota with, on the average, higher incomes. That also will benefit the local tourist industry.”
Hinderaker also took a shot at the competing Stock study, criticizing the professor’s methodology and saying that he neglected to consider whether a new copper mine in Michigan had a negative impact on tourism.
The center plans to back its study with an advertising campaign to highlight mining’s potential. The debate it will spur is welcome. But in this back-and-forth, Minnesotans should also consider the Michigan mine’s size and the Twin Metals mine’s location.
The Twin Metals ore processing facility is planned for a site less than four-tenths of a mile from Birch Lake, whose waters are connected to the BWCA. The $1.2 billion project is also slated to process 10 times more ore than the Michigan mine. To realize the potential economic benefit projected by the CAE study, many other mines will be necessary.
That’s a key reason some nearby Ely residents are skeptical about the CAE study. “It seems preposterous that you can put a massive industrial zone on the very edge of Minnesota’s greatest natural treasure and it’s only going to increase tourism,’’ said Jason Zabokrtsky, owner and operator of Ely Outfitting Company.
Understanding this issue and managing the debate will be among the most difficult tasks awaiting Minnesota’s next governor. As the Star Tribune Editorial Board has long argued, this issue is too complex to let candidates paint themselves or their opponents as either pro- or anti-mining. Each project must be considered on a case-by-case basis, and only if extensive scientific review shows that mining can be done responsibly should a project go forward.
Voters should start vetting candidates now to ensure that this balance is struck.