On a chilly southern Arizona morning, a white van bounces along a narrow dirt road bordered by prickly pear and mesquite. The Santa Rita Mountains slope upward a mile in the distance, curving gently inward to form an ancient amphitheater.

Inside the van, geologist Jeff Cornoyer talks to a small tour group as he drives, struggling to be heard over the roar of the van’s heater.

“Below this surface covering, there are 7 billion pounds of copper,” he says.

Over the next 20 years, his employer, Rosemont Copper, proposes to carve a mile-wide, half-mile-deep hole in the ground to extract the ore. At today’s market prices, that copper is worth $25 billion.

Copper is arguably the metal that runs the modern world. It is found within a dizzying array of electrical, plumbing and building applications. Living without it would require nothing short of a monastic effort.

The van stops at what would be the center of the mine’s open pit — ground zero for a passionate debate that has waged for several years. Concerned locals worry about the toxic effects of a new mine in their neighborhood. Rosemont says those fears are unjustified, because the mine will be one of the most environmentally progressive copper mines ever constructed.

Cornoyer puts it bluntly, saying the copper has to come from somewhere. But beyond the not-in-my-backyard fight is a broader question: How much copper do we really need?

Copper deficit

The U.S. consumed about 1.8 million metric tons of copper in 2011, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). We mined only 1.1 million metric tons, leaving a gap of about 700,000 metric tons. By comparison, Chile, the world’s top producer, mined 5.4 million tons.

Recycling made up for some of the difference. “Old scrap” copper — recycled from discarded wiring, automobiles, electronics and more — accounted for 130,000 tons. The International Copper Association estimates that 80 percent of the copper ever mined is still in use today, a testament to the metal’s resilience. Even after recycling, the total U.S. copper deficit in 2011 was about 570,000 tons.

To close the gap, we imported 660,000 tons of refined copper in 2011. But here, the math gets complicated. We export copper as well, and not just the shiny, refined stuff ready to become wiring in a new office building. According to the USGS, 220,000 tons of copper ores and concentrates left the country in 2011 — material that’s much closer to what is pulled out of the ground.

Rosemont would add to those exports. Half of the proposed mine’s copper concentrate will leave the country.

This bothers Gayle Hartmann, board president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a Tucson based volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the beauty of area mountain ranges. She calls the mine “completely unnecessary.”

According to Hartmann, sending copper elsewhere allows Rosemont to avoid paying royalties that would benefit the U.S.

“The government — the people — don’t get anything for this at all,” she says. “The profits go to the investors.”

Rosemont points to the fact that there are only three smelters operating in the country and says there simply isn’t enough domestic capacity to handle its ore.

Copper-hungry world

At the University of Arizona, Professor Mark Barton sits in a cozy lab surrounded by a dazzling array of colorful rocks. The veteran geologist has largely stayed out of the Rosemont fight, but he believes it is important to base the final decision on sound science and economics.

Barton says our country’s role in the global economy makes it almost impossible to make the decision based on U.S. copper consumption alone.

“A lot of our manufacturing of durable goods is sourced in Asia. There are things that nominally would count against our consumption that are being counted against Chinese consumption or Korean consumption.”

This means that the U.S. may actually consume more copper than the numbers show. Virtually all electronic devices, for instance, contain copper. China, which produced 70 percent of the world’s cell phones in 2011, needs a lot of copper to build the latest smartphones for American consumers.

Ironically, green power technologies tend to consume much more copper than their conventional counterparts. A single wind turbine can easily require more than a ton of copper, and hybrid and electric vehicles need double or even triple the copper content of a standard automobile. So are we locked into a copper-based future?

Barton cautiously says he could see the day when a combination of increased recycling, stable population growth and the development of alternative materials would level off copper demand.

 “The goal of minimizing copper by recycling is already being met to a significant degree,” he says.

Rosemont’s Cornoyer agrees, explaining that the current recycling rate of copper is 80 to 85 percent worldwide. Even still, he says, “We do need to recycle more. Maybe we could get it up to 95 percent.”

On the subject of alternatives, Barton theorizes that innovations such as room-temperature superconductors could one day eliminate the need for standard copper transmission lines. Unlike copper conductors, superconductors have no electrical resistance, but they require extremely low temperatures to work effectively. Research into graphite-based superconductors operating at room temperature has shown promise, but for now, such applications remain trapped in the theoretical realm.

“As long as we’re trying to build using existing technologies, the demand for copper probably will go up,” Barton says.

Another recurring question is whether existing U.S. mines could increase production to meet demand, thus sparing the Santa Ritas from the shovel.

“It’s fair to say that in terms of capacity — say, in wartime — you could have spurts in production, but it would lead to a higher aggregate cost and be less economically efficient,” Barton says. “I’m not saying that Rosemont is good or bad, but if it were cheaper to add that capacity to existing mines, people would do that.”

In addition to requiring big capital investments to haul copper out of the ground more quickly, Barton says, “There are physical limitations on just how many trucks you can fit into the same hole.”

No easy answers

There is no hole yet back at ground zero, where Cornoyer is ushering the tour group back into the van.

“Mining,” he acknowledges, “doesn’t have a black eye for just any reason.” He says the environmental mistakes of past operations are partly responsible for the opposition to Rosemont.

Cornoyer sees this as an opportunity to change public perceptions of copper mining if the mine is approved, which could come later this year.

“It will be the highest state-of-the-art mine this country has ever seen,” he says. “It will raise the bar and set a worldwide example, so I’m thrilled about it.”

Not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Hartmann is not convinced that Rosemont’s benefits outweigh the risks.

“It comes down to a question of value,” she says. “What’s more important — how we survive as a human race in the future, or the short-term profit that somebody can make off of a copper mine?”

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