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Arizona copper: A decarbonization and defense necessity

Lynndy Smith, President & CEO, Global Defense & Industry Coalition
Posted 9/26/23

President Biden is set to visit Arizona for the second time in the last month to deliver a speech attributed to friend and colleague, Senator John McCain.

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Arizona copper: A decarbonization and defense necessity


President Biden is set to visit Arizona for the second time in the last month to deliver a speech attributed to friend and colleague, Senator John McCain. In honoring the late senator's legacy as a champion for Arizona and a longtime supporter of our copper industry, the administration should further take steps to secure the state's future role in facilitating the energy transition.

Copper mining has shaped the history of the state of Arizona and still supplies a whopping 71 percent of all copper produced in the U.S. In the coming years, copper will become even more critical, as we work to build out the infrastructure for the clean energy economy and secure our national supply chains.

Dubbed by energy authority Daniel Yergin as the “metal of electrification,” copper’s global demand is expected to nearly double by 2035 as industry works to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. This means an unprecedented amount of copper will be needed to produce and scale the technologies essential for the clean energy transition, such as electric vehicles, batteries, solar panels and wind turbines.

However, it remains uncertain where we will source all the copper needed to reach ambitious decarbonization goals. S&P Global has estimated that current exploration and development are incapable of meeting the anticipated level of consumption. Its 2022 study found that copper supply shortfalls will begin as soon as 2025, with the U.S. importing between 57 and 67 percent of its copper needs by 2035. In other words, if we do not start to mine more copper today, we will not reach net-zero by 2050.

To make matters worse, geostrategic competition with China – which supplies over 50 percent of our net import reliance on 26 mineral commodities – has never been greater. In 2022, China produced 10.39 million tons and maintained 35 percent of the world’s refining capacity.  The U.S. must take additional steps now to secure our own supply, especially considering that copper is the Department of Defense’s second-most used material.

The Biden administration should be commended for the momentous incentives intended to onshore critical mineral recovery, production and supply chain inputs through the CHIPS Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act. Also notable was the Department of Energy’s recent Critical Materials Assessment, updated from 2010, which deemed copper critical to global clean energy futures. The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency (USDLA), an arm of the Department of Defense responsible for the National Defense Stockpile, likewise considers copper a strategic material of interest.

However, a significant policy inconsistency remains, impacting the status of copper. Despite bipartisan Congressional support otherwise, it is not on the U.S. Geological Survey’s critical mineral list. This classification would mean prioritization of projects aimed at recovering and processing copper, but without it companies are unable to capitalize on benefits from the landmark laws mentioned above.

By federal law, the USGS list evaluates U.S. vulnerability to global supply disruption of minerals deemed critical to industry, economy and security. Thus, it should harmonize the designation of copper with that of its fellow agencies who have already recognized the metal’s criticality.

Beyond officially designating copper as a critical mineral, the Biden administration must continue to develop domestic capacity by investing in American industry’s considerable mineral reserves and technical expertise. As the National Mining Association put it, “The best way to escape foreign markets is to invest in our own.”

Thankfully in Arizona, we are ready to be part of the solution. Resolution Copper is home to one of the largest undeveloped copper deposits in the U.S.; this project can supply up to 20 percent of the national copper demand once in production while simultaneously recovering collocated critical mineral and rare earth elements.

Alongside the semiconductor, battery and EV, and solar manufacturing industries, Resolution Copper would fill the raw materials supply chain gap in what is now the “Clean Energy Triangle” in central Arizona. Arizonans stand behind this generational opportunity, a continuation of an industry that has been the fabric of our economy for over a century.

To decarbonize the economy and build resilient domestic supply chains, America needs a domestic, sustainable, and secure critical minerals supply chain. With the Biden administration’s support, Arizona copper is ready to power the energy transition and spur American economic vitality in a manner that defends our national resource production and use.