We cannot have a clean energy future without copper

Associated Press/Wilson Ring
Ed Hathaway, of the Environmental Protection Agency, holds a rock that contains copper sulfide ore in this Aug. 19, 2019, file photo.

Recently on these opinion pages former Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher expressed his opposition to the Arizona-based Resolution Copper project, arguing that new American copper production would be purchased in global markets by countries that are converting to clean energy faster than we are.

As an Arizona-based chairman of Excelsior Copper, I have a different view. Yes, copper is a global commodity that will move to demand, but I don’t share his surrender to global markets. I believe that President Biden and the Democratic Congress will lead America into a clean energy future and our domestic demand will grow exponentially. But whose copper will we buy?

We know that the world needs affordable, zero carbon-emitting power generation to save the planet and that the future will be focused on increased renewables, electrification, and energy storage from which we can easily dispatch it to where it’s needed. One of the most indispensable ingredients in all these technologies — copper — is well known, but not widely available here in the United States.

A cleaner, decarbonized economy simply cannot happen without more copper. Consider that

an electric vehicle uses 200 pounds of it — four times more than a gas-powered vehicle. Solar panels contain 5.5 tons of copper per megawatt. Wind farms require it, as do the components in energy storage units.

The challenge is simply that we don’t have enough copper supply globally, or in the United States — not even close. The United States is a net importer of copper and has a major copper deficit that grows every year. The clean energy future has a mineral roadblock, and if we are going to stay on the road toward a clean energy future, there’s no alternative route.

Goldman Sachs has called the situation “a molecule crisis” and concluded that without more copper the clean energy economy simply “will not happen.” And unlike a knowledge-based workforce that can migrate with opportunity, minerals are place-bound.

One such place is Southwestern Arizona. The area is rich in copper and has been mined for many decades. It also has the workforce and physical infrastructure for the extraction and movement of copper to smelters and to market.

The price increases of copper — that reflect the gap between supply and demand — have stimulated new investments throughout the state. These include both a large number of new, smaller companies, such as ours, and large investments like Resolution Copper that alone would produce up to 25 percent of America’s needs.

Standards are key. While the environmental and economic benefits of copper and the clean energy future it will enable are clear, many threshold issues must also be addressed. Mining companies must demonstrate assured water supply, responsible management of mine-tailings, and should be expected to “go green” with electric vehicles and new carbon capture technologies. Further, they must evidence the highest standards of environmental protection and engage in real dialogue with both nearby communities and those with longstanding heritage on the land, such as Native American tribes.

As an environmental and human rights advocate, I have opposed many copper developments. But I also fervently believe in the transition to a decarbonized economy to save Mother Earth. And the clean energy demand for copper will happen whether America produces it or not. 

If not America, who? Those who oppose copper development everywhere while simultaneously advocating for a clean energy future are enabling even higher net imports of copper to fill the market vacuum from nations that do not adhere to American workforce or environmental standards. Can we morally cast one eye on a clean energy horizon while turning a blind eye to that inconvenient fact? Or are we prepared to give up copper-enabled battery storage, including cell phones, computers, wind and solar power? 

Finally, when will we learn the lessons of history? American dependence on oil from the Middle East led us to war. European dependence today on Russian gas has threatened to weaken their leverage against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Is dependency on copper and strategic minerals next?

Fred DuVal is chairman of Excelsior Mining, and a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, a former candidate for governor, and former senior Clinton White House official. Follow him on Twitter @FredDuVal.

Tags Biden clean energy copper mining environmental policy

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