Green Energy Calls for Copper—Mining in Alaska Can Build a Renewable Future
President Joe Biden’s ambitious goal to reduce America’s dependency on fossil fuels sets the stage for a dramatic increase in demand for the mineral resources necessary for green technology—especially copper.
Green tech, paired with increased electrification of people’s lives and the urbanization of developing countries, is driving the long-term demand for copper, says Patrick Donnelly, vice president of corporate communications and development at Trilogy Metals.
Trilogy Metals has teamed up with Australian-based South32 to create Ambler Metals, a company focused on bringing online two potential copper mines: the Bornite Deposit on NANA Tribal land and the Arctic Deposit on Alaska state land.
“Certainly, mining has a bright future due to the need for metals for decarbonization, new energy infrastructure, alternative energy technologies, and EVs,” says Lance Miller, vice president of natural resources for NANA. “Society as a whole needs to appreciate the amount and diversity of metals required for our present lifestyle and the demand of metals required to achieve the goals for a lower carbon footprint.”
Copper has been at the heart of technological development for thousands of years, dating back to even before the bronze age. In the modern world, the metal’s conductive properties lend it an irreplaceable role in nearly all forms of technology, including batteries, windmills, hydropower plants, and solar farms.
Toroidal (or ring-shaped) inductors on a circuit board.
Miller points out that the standard combustible engine car requires about 49 pounds of copper, while an electric car needs more than 180 pounds.
“The pressure on copper just to provide the building materials for the electrical systems that are required in our modern way of life is very significant,” says Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs with the Pebble Partnership.
In the United States alone, the total amount of annually discarded cell phones contain almost 2,100 tonnes of copper, according to the Minerals Education Coalition.
Annual copper use per capita worldwide sits at about 7 pounds, with Americans using closer to 12 pounds of copper per year. Experts expect annual per capita usage to continue to rise.
David Hammond, a mineral economist at Hammond International Group who works as a consultant for NANA, points out that even if copper use held steady—“no new technological demand or new uses”—annual copper consumption based on the growing world population would double by 2050.
“Unless people stop having kids, I think we’re gonna need a lot more copper,” Hammond says.
However, the push for an increased reliance on green technology in the United States and elsewhere will further increase the demand for the metal.
“There will be no Green New Deal and a major shift to renewable sources of energy without significant increases in domestic mining… period,” Miller says.
Energy Critical Minerals
While the United States is ramping up its need for copper, there is a global demand for the metal, as well as for nickel, lithium, manganese, cobalt, zinc, and other energy critical minerals.
“Minerals in general, and copper specifically, are probably the most important part of not only the United States’ but the world’s desire to switch from carbon-based energy to more renewable sources,” Heatwole says. “I, frankly, believe that the national environmental community doesn’t fully appreciate the supply considerations that need to be a part of the conversation about our desires to go green.”
Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Skibinski doesn’t see the Biden Administration necessarily prioritizing streamlining the permitting process for mines, but she’s optimistic that conversations are already underway about the role the sector plays in the President’s vision.
Skibinski is encouraged by statements about the importance of domestic mineral resources made at the confirmation hearing of Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but the fact that conversation was had so early on by some of the decision makers is really encouraging for us,” Skibinski says. “They need to hear from the mining industry on what we need to help them meet their goals.”
A close-up detail of copper cathodes, used in the manufacturing of continuous cast copper rods, which are further used for the wire, cable and transformer industries.
Skibinski explains that the country must bring more copper mines into production to meet domestic demand and ensure mineral security.
“We don’t actually have an operating copper mine here right now, but we have massive deposits. We need the permitting to be reasonable,” Skibinski says. “Our regulatory system needs a lot of work to bring copper mines into production in Alaska.”
Alaska’s geology is diverse—hosting a variety of copper deposits from the volcanogenic massive sulfide deposits at the Arctic Deposit to the sediment-hosted deposits at the Bornite Deposit and the porphyries at Pebble Mine, says Miller.
“Alaska is underexplored and has potential for discovery of more mines,” he notes.
The three most well-known, copper-rich deposits in the state are the Arctic Deposit, the Bornite Deposit, and Pebble Deposit.
With a summer exploration budget of $27 million, Ambler Metals is set to have workers in camp by May to work on the Arctic and Bornite deposits, says Donnelly. The plan is to complete 14,600 meters of drilling.
The company is set to start the permitting process for the Arctic Deposit this summer; Ambler metals expects permitting will take two to three years to complete, followed by another four years for operations, if approved, to begin.
“It takes a long time to permit,” Donnelly says. “The US permit system is very, very rigorous; it’s one of the most rigorous in the world.”
“The pressure on copper just to provide the building materials for the electrical systems that are required in our modern way of life is very significant.”
The Arctic project is expected to impact about 147 acres of wetlands, a significantly smaller footprint than most copper mines.
“Copper mines tend to be very, very large but very, very low grade,” Donnelly says.
The average head grades for a copper mine are about 0.6 percent, though those are significantly declining to as low as 0.3 percent in many established mines.
“In the case of Arctic, it’s got 4 percent copper equivalent,” Donnelly says, noting that about 2 percent of that is actually copper. The resources sit at about 5 percent copper equivalent, which ends up being about 4 percent when they’re converted to reserves.
“There are only a few mines in the world that have the grade we have,” Donnelly says.
The road to permitting has been particularly difficult for the Pebble Project. The US Army Corps of Engineers denied a federal permit for the project in November. However, that decision has been appealed, Heatwole says.
A copper water block is installed over the CPU on motherboard.
In the executive summary of the now-granted request for an appeal, the company wrote: “PLP bent over backwards to meet the District’s requests, including redesigning aspects of the Project to reduce impacts, developing costly and extensive data, agreeing to a new preferred alternative that was significantly different than what PLP had proposed, and developing detailed plans and mitigation measures in response to District requests. “Despite the robust, unprecedented scale of the plan, the District summarily rejected the CMP within days as ‘incomplete’ without giving PLP an opportunity to address the alleged gaps.”
The project, proposed on State of Alaska land, contains significant deposits of copper, gold, molybdenum, silver, and rhenium.
“It’s one of those largest undeveloped copper opportunities in North America,” Heatwole says.
Heatwole says the opposition to the project raises a significant question: Where do people want copper and other minerals to be mined?
“Do you want it to come from first world jurisdictions, such as the United States, where we take very seriously our environmental ethos?” he asks.
Heatwole says ethical sourcing of copper and other mineral resources goes beyond mitigating environmental impacts to general safety and labor practices.
“There are a lot of minerals coming into the world marketplace from countries that don’t care about such things as child labor,” Heatwole says. “Look at cobalt coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
Concerned groups have documented severe human rights issues in Democratic Republic of the Congo mines for years, including violent clashes between miners and security personnel, child labor, and fatal accidents.
Skibinski echoes Heatwole.
“When you’re looking at domestically sourcing some of these minerals, it’s a huge advantage just from a security perspective,” Skibinski says. “But then you look at all of the other benefits like safety and environment.”
An induction heater copper coil.
Skibinski points out that US dependency on rare earth elements from China has already exposed significant security weaknesses, opening America up to being exploited in trade deals.
Senator Lisa Murkowksi’s American Mineral Security Act, proposed in 2020, sought to tackle issues of mineral dependency.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought renewed attention to the fact that our nation is heavily dependent on imports for a wide array of goods and technologies that are essential to our health, economy, and security,” Murkowski said in a 2020 news release on the bill.
“We need to reverse our damaging dependence on China and other nations and rebuild domestic supply chains for everything from personal protective equipment to clean energy technologies.”
While copper isn’t on America’s list of thirty-five “critical minerals,” Skibinski says there simply isn’t enough of the metal produced in the United States.
A domestic supply of copper provides geopolitical power and prevents countries, such as China, from forcing the United States to make unreasonable deals to ensure access to certain materials, Miller explains.
With projected demand and population growth, there will be a significant shortfall in copper supply within the next five to ten years, Donnelly says.
Changing Public Perception
As of April, copper was sitting at a ten-year price high of about $4 a pound. However, long-term trends in supply and demand for mineral products are vital to understanding the economic potential of a mine, which can usually take up to a decade to bring online.
“The prices now are rising, which could make properties that in the last several years have not looked that interesting yet could now be attractive and economic with the higher prices,” Miller says.
But one of the more difficult aspects of getting the public onboard with copper extraction projects is educating them about the safety measures being put in place to ethically source the mineral and how vital the metal is to modern society.
“The goal is to lift people out of poverty,” Heatwole says, noting that that happens through the creation of electrical grids and cheaper energy—both of which require “a lot” of copper.
Consumers need to understand that “the metals are really the building blocks of our built infrastructure,” Heatwole says.
Miller proposes one solution for consumer education: “Perhaps one way to educate is to have an ingredient list, such as on food products. For example, before you use your cell phone or a car, the user needs to agree they have read a list of all metals and the sources of the metals which have been used to make the product.”
Hammond says he doesn’t understand where those who oppose mining operations in the United States think the minerals necessary for green infrastructure are going to come from.
The Mineral Education Coalition estimates that a baby born in the United States in 2020 will use about 950 pounds of copper, 502 pounds of zinc, and 871 pounds of lead in its lifetime.
While Alaska’s vast, rugged landscape and strict permitting processes will always make it difficult to bring mines online here, the state could be well positioned to provide vital mineral resources to the nation as it pushes toward greener infrastructure.
“In order to have the goal of decarbonizing heavy industry and more alternative energy technologies, it will require mining a lot of, call them, energy critical metals,” Miller says.
“Certainly, mining has a bright future due to the need for metals for decarbonization, new energy infrastructure, alternative energy technologies, and EVs. Society as a whole needs to appreciate the amount and diversity of metals required for our present lifestyle and the demand of metals required to achieve the goals for a lower carbon footprint.”
In This Issue
50 Years of ANSCA
Fifty years ago, as the Watergate scandal swirled around then-President Richard Nixon, he signed into law the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). It was the largest land claims settlement in the nation’s history and a stark departure from agreements forced on Tribes in the Lower 48.