Residents in the Ely area should take this week’s developments regarding the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine as an opportunity to refocus their efforts on building a sustainable economy built on a high quality of life.
We’ve always viewed the Twin Metals project as speculative, and the preliminary mine plan the company released in 2014 did nothing to alter that view. The plan, with an estimated price tag of $2.9 billion, was incredibly expensive and its financial viability relied on metal prices well above the levels we see today, or that are forecast any time soon.
And given the mine’s proximity to the Boundary Waters, it was always going to face strong public opposition. Gov. Mark Dayton’s view, expressed in his letter to Twin Metals COO Ian Duckworth this week, may be unpopular with many in Ely and elsewhere on the Iron Range, but it reflects the opinion of the vast majority of Minnesotans on the subject. The latest polling on the subject, conducted in February, showed lopsided opposition to a mine near the BWCAW, even within the confines of the Eighth District.
Since the takeover of the project by Antofagasta, development of the project had already slowed. While the former Duluth Metals had strong incentive to push the project ahead quickly, Antofagasta has little reason to spend significant resources on it given the current state of the metals market. Since Antofagasta is already a major copper producer, its interests are better served by keeping the Twin Metals minerals in the ground for the foreseeable future, if only to restrict supply and keep metal prices higher.
While the proposed mine has been a divisive flashpoint in the community in recent years, it’s a political fight that is entirely unnecessary given such realities. Both sides share a strong interest in economic development in the area. They have competing visions to be sure, but the frequent charge that mine opponents are opposed to new livable wage jobs has never been true. And mine supporters have, too often, overlooked the potential economic downsides and dislocations that a shift to a mining economy could create in Ely.
While economic development is always tough in small, rural communities, Ely has fared better than most on the strength of its outstanding outdoor recreational assets and natural scenic beauty. While some who grew up in the community may not recognize it, for many people all across the country Ely is virtually a brand, one that represents a powerfully attractive lifestyle. It has helped Ely to attract a diverse and creative citizenry that has given Ely remarkable energy as a community. That energy should best be directed at building a better future, rather than being squandered on political infighting.
The odds for Twin Metals have always been long, and they got longer this week. When the Bureau of Land Management announced on Tuesday that the company has no right of renewal on two critical federal mineral leases, it raised the very real possibility that the leases will, in fact, be cancelled. If so, the Twin Metals project is all but dead in the water.
In the end, the divisive fight in Ely will have little bearing on whether Twin Metals survives as a viable project. Global economics and decisions made in Washington will likely hold sway. Rather than fight about a speculative project off in the distant future, folks in Ely should focus on the community’s strengths and continue the hard work of building a strong and sustainable economy for the long term.