Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Science (MS)

Degree Name

Environmental Studies

Department or School/College

Environmental Studies

Committee Chair

Neva Hassanein

Commitee Members

Jill Belsky, Steve Schwarze


University of Montana

Subject Categories

Environmental Studies


Northern Minnesota is rich in natural resources, perhaps most uniquely the expansive mineral deposits of the Mesabi and Vermilion Ranges. The steel and taconite mining opportunities along these veins helped facilitate the rapid growth and infrastructure development of the area and is an important part of the identity of the region northwest of Duluth, aptly known as Iron Range. In addition to iron deposits, The Iron Range contains large deposits of copper and nickel. Recently proposed copper-nickel mining projects by PolyMet and Twin Metals have garnered a great deal of public controversy, especially around issues of economic revitalization of the region and potential pollution associated with this type of mining. This thesis considers public perceptions of the proposed NorthMet mine in the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota. By considering the strategies both pro-mining and environmental groups have used in an attempt to sway public opinion, analyzing public comments, and conducting interviews, this research addresses how considering the NorthMet controversy in terms of the concept of social license to operate helps to frame a conversation about public perceptions of PolyMet and the proposed mine itself. A term coined by the mining industry, social license to operate (SLO) refers to a society’s general acceptance of a corporation or project, based on considerations of legitimacy, credibility and trust. SLO is considered separately from regulatory acceptance. While a social license to operate is not strictly required for a mining project to succeed, failure to achieve SLO may affect the efficient progress of a project through resulting protests, blockades, litigation, and other methods.

In the following research, I consider a breadth of data, including rhetorical strategies implemented by PolyMet, pro-mining groups, and environmental groups to sway public opinion about the project, a random sampling of public comments on the Final Environmental Impact Statement, and a handful of semi-structured interviews with individuals from the Arrowhead region of Minnesota. Presented as a case study, this thesis contributes to a growing body of academic literature about social license to operate and community perception of extractive industries.



© Copyright 2020 Sophia J. Frank