Opinion

Our Clean Energy Future Depends on Copper

While the American Jobs Plan dominates the headlines, many in Washington, D.C. are failing to acknowledge how much our future competitiveness in clean energy and infrastructure depends on having a robust supply of metals and critical minerals.

Cobalt, lithium, manganese, zinc, nickel, rare earths and silver are just some of the mineral building blocks for our modern economy. We can mine them here or buy them from foreign nations, but these minerals are essential for the modern technologies and infrastructure President Joe Biden has proposed.

The mineral that’s most needed is copper. Electric vehicles use four times the amount of copper as conventional cars. Batteries, electric motors, charging stations, wind turbines, solar panels and transmission lines that deliver clean energy to the grid all rely on copper. And many copper byproducts like tellurium and molybdenum are essential to manufacturing the advanced technologies that will power our economy for generations to come.

By 2050, the World Bank expects copper demand to rise by 200 percent. In the United States, there are only two active smelters capable of producing copper. Meanwhile, China and other countries are working overtime to bolster their smelting and refining capacity.

Last year, the United States imported 37 percent of the copper we used. China already refines 50 percent of the world’s copper and the United States only refines about 3 percent. National security experts have warned that relying on China for critical supply-chain materials like refined copper poses a serious threat to America’s national security interests.

And yet, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently introduced legislation to stop the development of a huge copper mine in a place where mining has been one of the biggest job creators for over 100 years. Their focus is the proposed Resolution Copper mine near Superior, Ariz., which has the potential to supply one-quarter of the nation’s copper demand.

The project has strong support from the surrounding community, including many members of Native American Tribes and organized labor. The steelworkers and pipefitters see jobs for union members and their families. Local officials like Superior Mayor Mila Besich, who testified at an April 13 congressional hearing against the legislation, have been strong advocates for the project. Unlike some in Washington, D.C., they understand the Biden administration’s Building Back Better agenda requires finding a means to safely and sustainably secure the natural resources we have in abundant supply.

For the past decade, community leaders and tribal elders, along with multiple federal and state agencies, have worked together with Resolution Copper as the U.S. Forest Service developed a comprehensive 3,000-page Environmental Impact Statement. The engagement process led to a number of important project design changes and other mitigations that will benefit residents of the Copper Triangle for generations, enabling the Town of Superior to grow and develop with additional land, expand recreation and help diversify the local economy. Notably, this process also led to the first-of-its-kind tribal monitoring program, which employs dozens of tribal members to ensure proper handling of culturally significant artifacts and natural resources surrounding the mine.

To many in the mining community, Resolution Copper represents the model for what a sustainable, modern American mine can be. The permitting process, while long and arduous, was thorough and completely transparent to all stakeholders. The Sanders-Grijalva legislation would shut the door on a project that will benefit Arizona and the entire nation, expose the federal government to substantial takings claims, and send a signal to other companies that America is closed for business when it comes to mining. That would be a huge mistake.

The United States can become a domestic minerals supply-chain powerhouse — but not if Congress withdraws mining permission from areas where mineral development is a vital source of jobs and tax revenue.

If we want to have a serious conversation about infrastructure and clean energy, we have to start at the beginning of the supply chain by boosting our domestic supply of copper. The inescapable fact is that mines can only be located in the few places where economically viable mineral deposits have been formed and discovered. Arizona’s Copper Triangle is one of those rare places.

For the sake of the clean energy future so many Americans want and the national security and the economic investment we need, the Resolution Copper project must not be delayed any more.

 

Laura Skaer is a member of the board of directors of the Women’s Mining Coalition, a nonprofit advocating for today’s modern mining. 

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