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The Copper Age Returns (and Brings a Mess)

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The Kennecott open-pit copper mine in Bingham Canyon, Utah.

How much thought have you given to copper recently? My guess is that the answer is “not much” or “none at all.” I’d probably have said the same myself until recently, when I read Bill Carter’s fascinating new book, Boom, Bust, Boom. Its central theme is the author’s ongoing struggle with his conscience: how is he to reconcile his disgust with the ugliness of the copper-mining industry -- the yawning pits, the sulfuric acid dripping through mountains of crushed rock, the acid mine drainage -- with his dependence on copper for every aspect of his everyday life? And that includes his dreams of a future economy powered by renewable energy.

I was forcefully reminded of Carter’s dilemma last week by a news item from newly democratic Myanmar, once known as Burma. It concerned a copper mine called Letpadaung. This began life as a 50-50 joint venture between a Canadian company, Ivanhoe Mines, and the military government of Myanmar. Two years ago, Ivanhoe’s share was bought out by a subsidiary of the giant state-owned Chinese company NORINCO -- the China North Industries Corporation. NORINCO is best known as a manufacturer of weapons systems for the People’s Liberation Army, though its tentacles also reach into engineering and infrastructure projects such as highways, dams, power plants, and subway systems; precision optics; retail vehicle sales; and microelectronics; as well as mining. Think of it as Halliburton, IBM, and Lockheed Martin all rolled into one.

Last Thursday, riot police used water cannons, tear gas, and incendiary devices to attack a peaceful encampment of protesters at the Letpadaung mine site -- an assortment of Buddhist monks, peasants complaining of illegal land seizures, and activists taking advantage of the country’s recent democratic opening -- who had been protesting for months against a proposed billion-dollar expansion. When the raid was over, dozens were injured; videos from a local hospital showed saffron-robed monks disfigured by burns.

This was just the latest in a string of similar events around the world. Five protesters against a new gold and copper mine were killed in Peru while I was there earlier this year (a story I tell in the current issue of OnEarth); a few weeks earlier, two more Peruvians had died during protests against another copper mine; and just days before the Myanmar attack, the Democratic Republic of Congo saw a new warlord and accused war criminal, Bosco "The Terminator" Ntaganda, seize control of the province of North Kivu. The endless bloodletting in North Kivu is explained by the fact that it contains some of the richest mineral deposits on the planet -- including copper, gold, cobalt, tungsten, and 70 percent of the world’s supply of tantalum, a mineral critical to our cell phones, tablets, and computers.

But we’re talking here about much more than consumer electronics. In the case of copper, what’s at issue is the human and environmental price we’re willing to pay for a future of wind turbines, solar arrays, energy-efficient buildings, and hybrid vehicles.

Let’s start by accepting that we live in a world of trade-offs, cost-benefit analyses, and the sober knowledge that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Sometimes the moral calculus is easy. Bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta, for example, would admittedly reduce our dependence on oil from the Middle East, but the costs -- measured in the filthiness of the fuel, the destruction of the Canadian boreal forest, the risks of a catastrophic spill, and the existence of a villain from central casting in the form of the Keystone XL pipeline -- make the decision kind of a no-brainer. Stop the pipeline.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a bit trickier. We know that there are days when natural gas wells in rural Wyoming can produce air pollution worse than in Los Angeles or Denver. And there’s a high fear factor involved in fracking, a sense that we’re in a kind of twilight zone in which people get mysterious ailments and cows' tails fall off, but where cause and effect haven’t been, and perhaps can’t be, definitively established. At the same time, abundant natural gas is a transition fuel to a lower-carbon energy system. So on this one we have proceeded with greater caution, our views spanning a spectrum that runs from frack off to this needs further study to maybe it’s a lesser evil. People of good will can differ.

The debate over large-scale solar arrays and wind farms has been even more nuanced. These are the emblems of our shiny green future, yet we’re rightly concerned about where we put them and how we operate them. They shouldn’t cause further harm to the already threatened desert tortoise of the Mojave desert; they shouldn’t needlessly kill birds and bats; and they shouldn’t get in the way of treasured views, from the rolling green hills of New England to the snowpeaks of the West. But overall, these are resolvable details in the larger scheme of our enthusiasm.

To me, however, the greatest of all trade-offs is strangely hidden in plain sight, and that is our reliance on the mining of copper, without which none of our energy dreams are possible. Right now, industry lobbyists seem to have us over a barrel. A future green energy economy will need all sorts of arcane metals and minerals -- cobalt and rare earth elements for magnets and batteries; cadmium, molybdenum, and rare earths for solar cells. But copper is the workhorse, the material of choice for the generation, storage, transfer, and use of power.

Generating a megawatt of power from wind, solar, and geothermal energy uses between four and six times as much copper as fossil fuels. One MW of land-based wind power may take as much as seven tons of copper; offshore wind power takes even more. By improving the efficiency of lighting and heating systems, cooling and ventilation systems, and motor and appliance design, copper is a key to green building -- and bear in mind that buildings account for 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

All sorts of poster-child projects illustrate the point. Austin Energy of Texas, one of the country’s most enlightened utilities, points to the exemplary qualities of the new Sweetwater wind farm, which uses more than 100 miles of copper wiring and cabling. Copper was critical to the design of General Motors’ new LEED Gold-certified assembly plant in Lansing, Michigan, the first automotive plant ever to receive LEED certification. And while we’re talking about the auto industry, there’s the uncomfortable fact that a hybrid uses twice as much copper as an ordinary car.

The seductive arguments of the mining lobbyists don’t stop there. We should mine more copper at home, they say, to reduce our strategic dependency on foreign suppliers. That’s much the same argument as the advocates of the Keystone XL pipeline make on behalf of tar sands oil. More than that, look at how unsavory our foreign suppliers are: why should the world look to Chinese arms manufacturers and Burmese generals for its copper, when we can dig it up right here in, say, Minnesota? But then comes the zinger: what prevents us from doing this is all those pesky environmental regulations. It can take seven to ten years to get a permit for a new open-pit mine in the United States. No wonder the investors prefer places with unpleasant human rights records!

A few stalwart groups, like MiningWatch in Canada, the Enough Project in Washington, D.C., and Mines and Communities in London, do a valiant job of tracking the industry’s environmental, labor, and human rights abuses. But that’s about it. Maybe it’s because most of the human and environmental costs occur out of sight and out of mind, in remote and unsavory places like North Kivu and Myanmar. For most of us, the cost of mining copper as the pathway to our dream future seems to rank about as high on our scale of concerns as the poor desert tortoise.

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OnEarth's executive editor has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19... READ MORE >
You're missing what I think is an important point. New sources of clean, cheap energy need to be developed as quickly as possible. There are all kinds of ideas out there--magnetics, anti-gravity, fusion--for starters. Unfortunately, our corporate controlled government is preventing break-throughs for new inventions--even those that would greatly increase efficieny. Secondly, we need to get more people living off the land--break up the big industrial farms, and allow people to be more independent. Turn metro areas into sustainable communities connected by mass transportation. We, as a planet, are in the middle of a huge crisis--which includes over population and climate change. We cannot go forward with the same mind-set that got us to where we are now. Copper and other metals can be recycled. We can greatly reduce the high turnover of electronics, vehicles, etc. for new updated models when old ones actually work quite well. We can learn to enjoy life and nature. By creating a healthy environment, we will be less dependent on health care. Wind and solar farms are not the answer. Nano-solar technology may be more viable. Also, if we got rid of all our unneccesary military actions, drones, guns, and attitudes that require us to continously be invading some country, we could save literally tons of metals. We cannot survive long as a species within this new century if we don't start thinking differently. However, you have brought up some points of awareness that could stimulate that thinking.