Frequently Asked Questions
"Don't We Need These Metals?"
We get a lot of questions about our position on the PolyMet issue to the effect of, don't we need these metals? Well, when it comes to PolyMet, the answer is actually, no, not really. For one thing, PolyMet would be a relatively small producer. For another thing, there is a lot of copper out there, including a lot of mined copper that should be recycled more effectively and more often. Eventually (sooner than later), part of our focus will have to be consumption as well. In the meantime here are six points of information about the need for and availability of copper currently, with sources.
1. PolyMet would be a tiny contributor to the overall production of copper, nickel and other metals. PolyMet claims they would produce 36,000 tons per year of copper, 7,700 tons per year of nickel, and 360 tons of cobalt per year. If PolyMet were permitted and met these projections, they would increase global copper production by 0.2%, global nickel production by 0.03%, and global cobalt production by 0.3%. Another way of thinking about it is that if we reduced our global copper usage by just 0.2%, we would eliminate the need for the copper that PolyMet would produce.
(Sources: PolyMet's production estimates, available at http://www.polymetmining.com/northmet-project/overview/. All figures are based on 2014 global production figures, the latest available. Copper: International Copper Study Group, World Copper Factbook 2016, p. 58. Nickel: International Nickel Study Group, http://www.insg.org/stats.aspx. Cobalt: US Geological Study Mineral Commodity Summaries 2016, Cobalt, p. 52 https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/cobalt/mcs-2016-cobal.pdf)
2. The copper market is in a surplus. The International Copper Study Group projects a 160,000 ton copper surplus in 2017, the equivalent of the output of more than four PolyMet mines. Glencore, PolyMet's largest shareholder, has idled copper mines because of low prices, removing 300,000 tons of annual copper production. That's nearly nine times the proposed capacity of PolyMet.
(Sources: "Copper Use to Grow Marginally, Engineering and Mining Journal, November 14, 2016, http://www.e-mj.com/departments/markets/6609-copper-use-to-grow-marginally.html#.WHQQ5rYrJuU)
3. Reserves of copper continue to grow and outpace demand. "Despite increased demand for copper produced from ore in recent years, increases in reserves have grown, and there is more identified copper available to the world than at any other time in history."
(Sources: International Copper Study Group, World Copper Factbook 2016, p. 9, http://www.icsg.org/index.php/component/jdownloads/finish/170/2202)
4. We waste and throw away tons of metals in Minnesota every year. In 2013, the MPCA estimates that Minnesotans threw 130,000 tons of metals into landfills, and another 35,000 tons of electronics. These metals can be recovered and recycled.
(Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 2013 Statewide Waste Characterization, December 2013 p. 5-2, https://www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/w-sw1-60.pdf)
5. Globally, low prices for copper have caused a decrease in the rate and amount of recycled copper. Between 2007 and 2014 (the last year data was available), the annual amount of global copper scrap use fell by 488,000 metric tons of copper, the equivalent of thirteen PolyMet mines worth of copper production. Between 2007 and 2014, the proportion of global copper usage fulfilled by recycling fell from 36% to 29%. That means that there is a lot of slack capacity to increase scrap recycling. We should do that before we dig up wetlands in the headwaters of Lake Superior's largest tributary.
(Source: International Copper Study Group, World Copper Factbook 2016, p. 53)
6. Since copper can be recycled repeatedly, over time recycled copper will surpass mined copper. In 25 years, more of the copper used will be recycled than mined. One industry blog put it this way, "Most people see metal recycling as something additional to mining. Some view recycling more as a competing source of raw materials. However, the right way to look at the combination of mining and recycling is that mining fills the gap between demand and recycled supply. Recycled metal is fundamentally cheaper and more sustainable than mined metal."
(Source: "Recycling and the Future of Mining," The Business of Mining, April 15, 2012, https://thebusinessofmining.com/2012/04/15/recycling-the-future-of-mining/)
Arguments about the need for copper and the use of copper in our everyday lives isn't the real reason a giant foreign-owned company wants to mine in northern Minnesota. It's a corporate brochure talking point. That's a fact.