In the U.P., nation's only nickel mine models the tensions of electric vehicle future
Riley Beggin, The Detroit News
Inside the Eagle Mine in Michigan's Marquette County.
Keith King / Special to The Detroit News
Riley Beggin, The Detroit News
Michigamme Township — In the middle of the vast Upper Peninsula wilderness, the ground rumbles from Eagle Mine's massive trucks hauling high-grade nickel and copper ore around the clock from more than 3,000 feet into the earth.
Deep underground, miners work in near 90-degree heat as the dark rock walls shimmer in the light of headlamps and heavy machinery. That sparkle comes from minerals that will make their way across the world before, in some cases, heading back to Metro Detroit, where they will be used in batteries powering the next generation of electric vehicles.
Eagle is the only currently operating nickel mine in the United States. It's set to close in 2025 when its treasures are expected to be exhausted— an indicator of an impending crunch on Detroit automakers that are pouring billions into transforming their businesses from gas- and diesel-powered engines to battery-electric ones.
More lithium, nickel and cobalt will be crucial to automakers realizing their plans. But as the auto industry and governments compete in a global race to secure the vital minerals, the nation’s only active nickel mine and the communities around it provide a vivid example of the environmental, economic and cultural challenges they face.
Right now, those minerals are largely sourced from other countries. President Joe Biden and many in Congress, locked in competition with China, want to make sure battery minerals needed to achieve EV goals more frequently go from ground to garage within U.S. borders. The nation doesn't possess the mining and processing scale to achieve that future, but its chief global economic rival does.
There are no other high-grade nickel deposits currently identified in Michigan, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Mining of a nickel deposit in northern Minnesota — the only other proposed project in the country today — has stagnated amid court challenges, raising the prospect of continued reliance on foreign sources for the mineral.
China is home to more than 75% of all battery production capacity and around 80% of global refining capacity for EV minerals, giving it immense influence over the battery supply chain. U.S. leaders believe China could weaponize that influence against them by using its power over the supply chain to retaliate in political and trade disputes.
The push to source minerals domestically is also informed by human rights concerns in areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where half of the world's cobalt is — and where locals, including children, work in unsafe "artisanal" mines.
Automakers, seeking a more transparent supply chain, are also looking to partner with suppliers that can provide assurance of labor and environmentally friendly operations. In one recent example, General Motors Co. partnered with a lithium brine extraction project in Southern California that seeks to avoid the environmental damage of open-pit mining, which is water-intensive and poses groundwater contamination concerns.
But re-shoring the supply chain isn't simple. New mining projects in the United States raise environmental concerns, can impact tribal rights, and are usually subject to long permitting and legal challenges. Once a mineral deposit is identified, it can take more than a decade for mines to begin producing as they navigate requirements intended to protect people and natural resources.
Even when mines at home begin extracting ore, there is a dearth of U.S. processing facilities to turn it into the metal automakers need. Eagle Mine's ore — 1.5% of the nickel currently produced globally — is sent to Canada for smelting and refining, though it used to be shipped as far away as Finland and China.
Some Republicans in Congress want to tweak permitting to make it easier for new projects to break ground. With aggressive emissions reduction goals on the horizon — and a plurality of greenhouse gases still coming from transportation — Biden and allies are faced with threading the needle between environmental justice and economic development.
Eagle Mine's Canadian parent company, Lundin Mining Corp., is not currently exploring for more nickel deposits in the U.P. But the mine's management argues striking that balance is possible, and point to their own story as an indicator of both the challenges and opportunities ahead.