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Arizona paves streets of copper for U.S.

Metal Tech News - May 1, 2024

University convened with key leaders across government, industry, and academia on Capitol Hill to discuss sustainable production and cultivating the next generation of miners.

In a pivotal move to safeguard the U.S. critical mineral supply chain, the University of Arizona has taken center stage in pioneering sustainable mining practices, nurturing a skilled domestic workforce, and powering the national transition to renewable energy and next-gen defense technology at an event that brings attention once more to a metal that is fundamental to the clean energy future but does not hold the designation of critical – copper.

In a bizarre twist of bureaucratic inertia, the nation faces an issue that, at face value, seems to be a non-issue – copper is critical to electrical infrastructure but is not a critical material.

Initially drafted in 2018 and finalized in 2022, according to the United States Geological Survey, the U.S. Critical Minerals List was determined using the most up-to-date scientific methods to evaluate mineral criticality.

Based on directives stated in the Energy Act of 2020, USGS defines a "critical mineral" as a non-fuel (ruling out uranium) mineral or mineral material essential to the economic or national security of the U.S. and which has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption.

However, outcry over copper not making the list led the USGS to issue a statement over its reasoning.

"While copper is clearly an essential mineral commodity, its supply chain vulnerabilities are mitigated by domestic capacity, trade with reliable partners, and significant secondary capacity," wrote David Applegate, director of USGS, in a letter to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Republican Rep. Bob Latta of Ohio. "As a result, the USGS does not believe that the available information on copper supply and demand justifies an out-of-cycle addition to the list at this time."

Despite his reasoning, the case for copper's criticality is backed by commodity analysts who predict global copper production will need to double by 2035 to meet demands driven by global net-zero emission goals.

University of Arizona

Panelists from global and national mining industry, national mining organizations, and mining schools participated in the University of Arizona's Copper is Critical event on Capitol Hill.

There won't be enough

Building that level of capacity in a little over a decade while simultaneously not losing any output from existing mines is a tall order and ultimately a highly unlikely scenario considering the historical context of mine development in the United States – also seeing recent stops by the Biden administration on new mine developments at projects that seem to specialize in copper.

In its most optimistic forecast, S&P Global estimates that annual production from global mines will be 1.6 million metric tons (3.5 billion pounds) short of meeting copper demands in 2035. In its most pessimistic scenario, this copper shortage is a staggering 9.9 million metric tons (21.8 billion lb).

"The challenge is that if current trends continue...there's a huge gap," S&P Global Vice Chair Daniel Yergin said upon the release of the copper analysis. "And even if you put on your roller skates and your jet burner [to realize optimistic supply growth], and everything goes right, there's still a gap, because it's enormous. And it's important to recognize that now, not in 2035."

This warning follows a 2020 World Bank report that estimates the green energy transition alone will require approximately 550 million metric tons (1.1 trillion lb) of copper over 25 years, and a 2022 report by Goldman Sachs declaring copper as the "new oil" due to the critical role it plays in the clean energy future.

Despite the statement by the USGS, many still see copper as critical, not due to its present status but the looming demand.

Given the enormous quantities of copper needed to wire the wind turbines, solar farms, electric vehicles, and increased electrical transmission lines that will deliver the envisioned low-carbon future, this omission was a surprise to many mining executives and analysts.

This includes billionaire mining magnate Robert Friedland, who contends that adding the red energy metal to the list is essential to achieving the White House's climate goals.

"It has to be, it's obvious," he said in response to a question on copper criticality during a June 2023 interview on Bloomberg TV. "America hasn't developed a mine of consequence for 40 years. The mining of copper is "absolutely critical."

Thus, the state that leads America in copper production has opted to bring forth its case and elevate awareness that copper is a critical material.

Copper is Critical

Held in early April, University of Arizona leadership and faculty led dialogue at the "Copper is Critical" event on Capitol Hill with leaders from government and industry, including Colorado School of Mines, the University of Texas at El Paso, BHP, National Mining Association, Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration Inc. (SME), Freeport-McMoRan, Rio Tinto, and Komatsu Mining.

As it stands, roughly 70% of the nation's copper is produced in Arizona.

In previewing the latest International Energy Forum report, David Hahn, Craig M. Berge Dean of the College of Engineering at UA, saw it highlighted that in the next 30 years, it is imperative that the U.S. produce more copper than ever historically, which would require bringing a new mine online every year.

The last mine came online in 2021.

"Bringing a mine on every year seems impossible," said Hahn. "It needs to ramp up and that requires a significant shift in the public's understanding of how we can do this work in a safe, sustainable manner."

Recently, the Congressional Western Caucus learned firsthand how the university is connecting faculty across disciplines to educate future leaders of the industry.

Meeting mid-February with lawmakers, the university brought our iron-pressed, white-collar legislators 150 feet down into the university's San Xavier mine, the only student-run multilevel mine in the United States with a working vertical shaft.

"We were proud to be able to share this incredible University of Arizona asset with the Congressional Western Caucus delegation, and I thank Chairman Newhouse and Rep. Ciscomani for their support and interest," said University of Arizona President Robert Robbins. "The university is primed to pioneer the future of domestic critical mineral production, processing and recycling, as well as produce high-quality, prepared graduates who are ready to join the nation's mining workforce."

Bringing attention to what is required to operate a mine in the 21st century to the heads of state was just the first step for the university. Ultimately, the mines will require people.

University of Arizona

Kray Luxbacher, professor and head of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering, University of Arizona College of Engineering, speaks inside the new mine of the San Xavier Underground Mining Laboratory as a crowd, including Reps. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas and Mike Collins of Georgia, listen.

The future is in its people

Of course, during a panel discussing mining, the topic would inevitably lead to permitting.

During a conference held in Alaska hosted by Governor Mike Dunleavy, S&P Global Vice Chairman Daniel Yergin compared the long and arduous permitting process to the COVID lockdown.

"Our country is suffering from a permitting pandemic – it leads to paralysis, lack of economic resolve, and a great deal of pain," the highly respected authority on international energy and geoeconomics said during the 2023 Alaska Sustainable Energy conference.

Several panelists at the event mentioned the lengthy permitting process being a hindrance to the industry's growth.

Kray Luxbacher, Greg and Lisa Boyce leadership chair of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering, estimated that it can take anywhere from two to twenty years.

Regardless of the timetable, however, a new mine would still need miners.

"To produce minerals, we need more mines, but we lack a collective workforce in the U.S.," said Luxbacher. "We are one of only 14 colleges nationwide to produce graduates ready to enter the industry as soon as they turn their tassel."

The need for an educated and skilled mining workforce is urgent, according to Marc LeVier, 2023 president of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration (SME). Less than 200 engineers graduated from schools accredited in mining and engineering, but the industry has the capacity to hire 600 annually, he said.

"To accommodate the industry's needs across mineral commodities, we'll need 350 new mines. The workforce that goes with that is going to drive a demand that will increase three to four times at least."

To combat this looming deficit of skilled miners, the Mining Schools Act would create a grant through the Department of Energy to support mining and recruitment efforts.

According to Mary Kathrine Kirlin, manager of government and political affairs for the National Mining Association, rather than relying on foreign sources for these critical minerals, we could be mining them domestically with the best natural resources under the best environmental safety standards.

"We need to show people that we are committed to environmental stewardship, at the forefront of technological advancement and that there are careers to be had that attract a wide range of skillsets," she said.

Doing its part to pioneer a future in mining and all the sectors connected to the products and technologies that exist due to those mined materials, the university will continue collaborating with industry representatives and policymakers in order to lead conversations that ultimately result in sustainable solutions in Arizona and the nation as a whole.


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