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Vol. 15, No. 47 Week of November 21, 2010
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

Mining News: A wake up call to anti-mining forces

Columnist: “We need copper” for green technologies, energy independence and a strong economy as well as host of traditional uses

Caroline May

For Mining News

President Barack Obama heralds green renewables as key to a strong economy and energy independence, but without vigorous domestic copper production, his goals will be difficult to reach.

Copper, the world’s preeminent electricity and heat conductor, is a necessity. The average American home contains an estimated 400 pounds of copper in wire, plumbing, and fixtures; the average automobile requires 50 pounds. The Northwest Mining Association estimates that a typical child born today will use 1,500 pounds of copper throughout the course of his or her lifetime.

The United States is one of the most copper-rich countries in the world, second only to Chile. America sits on an estimated 550 million tons of copper and presently is self-sufficient in the material.

Copper is becoming increasingly important as technological advancements and “green” technologies demand more of this metal and its byproducts. Hybrid cars, for example, use double the copper of their fossil fuel predecessors. Wind energy turbines require over a ton of copper each, and the new transmission lines needed to deliver renewable energy to our homes will require millions of pounds of copper.

China, the world’s largest copper consumer and America’s best copper customer, has long recognized the future indispensability of the material. China has in recent years been buying up the metal in quantities that exceed its current need.

Nobu Su, CEO of eastern shipping giant Taiwan Marine Transport, explained the strategy to the UK Telegraph: “China has woken up… the next industrial revolution is going to be led by hybrid cars, and that needs copper. You can see the subtle way that China is moving into 30 or 40 countries with resources.”

America’s copper production should keep up not only with domestic demand, but world demand. Furthermore, increased U.S. copper exports could help reduce America’s current trade imbalance with China.

The Congressional Research Service in 2007 reported that the “U.S. trade deficit with China is large and growing… from the U.S. perspective, its bilateral trade deficit with China more than trebled in value over the last eight years, from just over US$83 billion in 2001 to over US$266 billion in 2008.”

In 2009, the most recent annual statistic, America’s trade deficit with China was US$226.8 billion. (The reduction in 2009 was largely attributed to the reduction in imports due to the economic downturn.)

Although copper is 100 percent recyclable, there is still not enough market-ready copper to meet growing demand.

Despite copper’s undeniable value, its promising environmental qualities, and the dangers of further trade imbalances with China, the very organizations and individuals promoting the carbon-free technologies that require copper are hindering domestic production.

Environmentalists and special interests in Alaska, for example, are currently trying to block development of Pebble Mine, which could become one of the largest copper mines in the world. They claim the mine represents a threat to the region’s ecosystem. They say this despite the fact that a mine site plan has yet to be developed.

In addition to raising their voices, Pebble Mine opponents have been creative in their obstructionism. In 2007 the movement pushed two pieces of state legislation designed to halt the project: Senate Bill 67, or “The Jay Hammond State Game Refuge Act,” which sought to block off the area from resource development by establishing a state fish and game refuge, as well as House Bill 134, “An act relating to conservation and protection of wild salmon production in drainages affecting the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve.” Both lost momentum and died with the end of the 25th Alaska Legislature.

Pebble Mine opponents then got an initiative known as Ballot Measure 4, or the “Alaska Clean Water Initiative,” on the 2008 ballot. The initiative would have imposed debilitating regulations on mines in Alaska, but was soundly defeated.

Opponents then turned to the state Legislature, promoting another antagonistic piece of legislation: House Bill 242 or “An Act relating to the protection of wild salmon, wildlife, water, and other resources in or near the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve and to large-scale mining in the headwaters of the Reserve.” They also are asking the federal Environmental Protection Agency to block development of the mine under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Apparently to this end, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson visited the area in July 2010.

Environmentalists also have taken the matter to the courts. Our Bristol Bay, an online clearinghouse for Pebble Mine opposition, highlights the legal challenges facing the mine: “Pebble Limited Partnership will need to secure regulatory approval for an estimated 60 permits from a variety of federal, state, and local permitting authorities. Furthermore, pending state legislation and numerous legal challenges may increase regulatory requirements for Pebble, or preclude development altogether.”

Acutely aware of the long permitting processes Pebble Partnership (a joint venture owned by Anglo-American PLC and Northern Dynasty) must endure, hostile groups also have filed numerous lawsuits challenging the issuance of Pebble’s exploration permits, water rights, and land-use plans.

Pebble Partnership has spent the last eight years and over US$132 million conducting an extensive range of environmental and socio economic impact studies of the site.

Cynthia Carroll, CEO of Pebble Partnership’s Anglo-American Plc, has asserted, “We will not be associated with the development of a mine that damages Alaska’s fisheries and wildlife … If the mine cannot be planned in a way that provides proper protections, it will not be built.”

The partnership has – at least so far – been backing these words up with action.

To minimize its footprint, the partnership has committed to using helicopters while conducting a series of studies to determine environmental baselines, including “Fisheries, and Aquatic and Marine Habitat, Surface and Groundwater Quality, Terrestrial Wildlife/Habitat, Wetlands, Climate (Meteorology) and Air Quality, Soil and Rock Geochemistry and Trace Elements,” and “Socioeconomic considerations, including Recreation, Subsistence, and Cultural Resources.” It has made its data available to the public online, providing an extraordinary level of transparency.

With its estimated 80 billion pounds of copper, 100 million ounces of gold, and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum, the Pebble Mine “has the potential to be one of the great metal producers of the 21st century,” said Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen.

Despite the wealth of this green energy necessity, environmentalists remain steadfast in their opposition.

Copper is essential not only to today’s economy and America’s competitive edge over China, but also to the renewable future environmentalists envision. Mines such as Pebble ought not to be impeded by self-defeating environmentalists in constant search of a corporate interest to decry.

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