In all of the discussion about copper mining in Minnesota, there is a remarkable lack of references to copper consumption within our state. At the same time that wind and solar energy expansion and electric vehicles are being enthusiastically promoted, the critical role of copper (and nickel) to these developments is never mentioned.
A typical wind turbine contains 4 to 8 tons of copper. Solar collectors contain even more copper per unit of energy generated. Even more significant is the copper used in the production of hybrid and electric vehicles. A fully electric automobile contains three to four times as much copper as a standard vehicle — a hybrid about twice as much. As the market for fossil-fuel-free vehicles expands, so does our need for copper.
In late 2017, the world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton, estimated that conversion of just 8 percent of the global auto fleet to electric vehicles would increase global copper use by more than 40 percent. The World Energy Council estimated an even greater impact on copper demand.
This expected increase comes on top of an already rapid rise in copper consumption. Overall copper consumption doubled between 1963 and 1996 — then doubled again over the past two decades.
Copper consumed here comes from about 40 mines located around the U.S., and from imports. A ranking of countries with respect to known copper reserves shows the U.S. among the top six. The quantity of America’s known reserves is similar to those of Mexico and about four times those of Canada.
But despite significant domestic reserves, the U.S. annually imports about 30 percent to 35 percent of its copper needs from other countries, with Chile, Mexico and Canada all being major suppliers. This percentage is certain to grow without new or expanded domestic mining activity.
As noted frequently by mining opponents, copper mining poses environmental risks. That is why citizens groups all across the U.S. — and specifically in Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Michigan, in addition to Minnesota — are actively opposing proposed copper mining or mining expansion. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss: “Not here, not there, not anywhere.”
But in none of these states, nor anywhere else in the U.S., is there citizen opposition to copper consumption, despite the fact that countries that supply copper to the U.S. all face significant environmental risks from copper procurement, with a long history of impacts that have ranged from significant to catastrophic.
Should Minnesotans conclude that the risks of copper mining are simply unacceptable, with the knowledge that environmental risks in all copper-supplying regions are high, then an effort should be mounted to reduce copper consumption.
A return to the Obama-era 20-year moratorium on copper mining in Minnesota, as advocated by some, should perhaps be accompanied by a 20-year moratorium on the development and adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles, and by a concerted investment to find copper (and nickel) substitutes.
Society must come to grips with its aversion to copper procurement even as it celebrates the promise of new copper-dependent products and technologies designed to protect and enhance environmental quality. While taking reasonable steps to protect our domestic environment, we must find a way to shoulder our fair share of risks in obtaining the copper we need — or we must take steps to create a future in which less rather than more copper is needed.
Jim Bowyer is an environmental consultant, an emeritus professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota, and the author of “The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise.”