IRON RANGE — Following the announcement of new clean car standards by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz earlier this week, the state now finds itself in a position to potentially capitalize on the growing demand for electric vehicles.
As more states are requiring car manufacturers to supply more EVs to the market, the federal government has been simultaneously pushing to streamline mining permits for rare earth metals critical to manufacturing the vehicles.
Such efforts represent an opening in the domestic market for companies like PolyMet, which is trying to build Minnesota’s first-ever copper-nickel mine, and whose product would be central to U.S. made EVs.
It would also open the door for Minnesota to unlock a new manufacturing sector as a maker of EVs, an initiative Walz has referenced when discussing how PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mining project fits into his plan for a clean energy future.
In an announcement this past Wednesday, the governor unveiled new clean car standards that are expected to be in place by the model year 2023, which would require car makers to supply more EVs in the state in an effort to reduce emissions.
“I want to unleash the innovation we have here — it makes sense for us to be a manufacturing state,” Walz said in a conference call, when asked how PolyMet could complement EV growth. “This seems to be that fit.”
Finding domestic sources of copper and other rare earth metals has been a recent focus of President Donald J. Trump amid his administration’s trade war with China, which has threatened rare earth shipments from the country. Aside from EVs, lithium and copper are key components of defense technology used by the federal government.
Trump issued an executive order this year directing the Pentagon to find rare earth sources outside of China, according to Reuters, and legislation is being introduced in Congress to streamline mining permits and fund geological studies.
Earlier this month, a group of senators said America is falling behind on extracting and producing rare earth minerals that could create a domestic production boom. Similar legislation is also moving through the U.S. House.
“To me, it’s a no-brainer that all policymakers in Minnesota support our precious metal projects,” said 8th District U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn. “For all those electric vehicles he wants on the road, we’re going to need to find a lot of copper, nickel, iron, platinum, cobalt, and palladium. I know Governor Walz supports high environmental and labor standards, so I hope he prefers to mine those minerals from our own state instead of foreign countries like China, Russia, and the Congo.”
Minnesota appears to stand in a prime position to capitalize on both increased EV production and utilization of domestic supply chains.
The Duluth Complex, the mineral deposit on which PolyMet sits, is hailed as one of the largest copper deposits in the U.S. When operational, the company expects the NorthMet mine to produce 310 million pounds of copper annually and 255 million tons of copper and nickel over the next century.
Copper is an essential part of EV production used in motors, batteries wiring and charging stations for the cars. One EV, according to the Copper Development Association, uses between 85 and 183 pounds of copper.
PolyMet is also promoting this potential market, using the CDA figures in recent presentations to investors and communities.
State Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, supports the concept of developing copper to be manufactured in Minnesota, noting the potential boost to the union workforce.
He said a strong domestic market for copper from PolyMet shows how the Iron Range mining industry is relevant to a clean energy future.
“If we’re going to do this, let’s build a strong foundation from the ground up, beginning with the very minerals needed, that are below our feet on the Range,” he said in a phone interview Friday. “ We need clean steel and clean copper, built by the talented men and women of labor — made right and made in Minnesota.”
Increasing Minnesota’s manufacturing sector also stands to boost its economy.
In 2018, manufacturing was the largest private-sector contributor to the state’s GDP and second-largest sector, accounting for more than $52 billion. It trailed only the finance, insurance, real estate, rental and leasing industry, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
DEED figures also show manufacturing accounts for the second-highest payroll last year at $21.6 billion behind healthcare services, and $67,098 in annual average wages being 15 percent higher than the average of other sectors at $58,446.
Manufacturing accounted for more than 321,000 direct jobs last year in Minnesota and 721,000 jobs supported by the industry, the million-plus direct and indirect jobs total more than 40 percent of all jobs statewide, according to DEED estimates.
“Half the vehicles will be autonomous and the vast majority will be low emission,” Walz said, referencing the state’s 50-year transportation plan, while introducing the clean car standards. “This is Minnesota doing what forward-looking states do.”