As Washington debates “shovel-ready” jobs as a metaphor, one U.S. senator has indicated her disdain for the literal kind. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) announced last week that she would urge the EPA to short-circuit the permitting process for a proposed copper/gold/molybdenum mine in Alaska. We’re told that we can either allow the mine to proceed - or we can save the salmon.
Is the choice really that stark and simple? Is the situation so dire that the EPA should step in to stop the permitting process as the senator urges, or should we let the prescribed process – EPA’s study, currently underway, is due out this fall - run its course?
Most news stories on the issue play up the “fish over jobs” angle, potent at this time of economic distress. Few focus on the way the “Not In My Back Yard” mentality morphs into environmental imperialism, empowering rogue rulers and harming the poor and powerless.
Consider the fact that copper - the primary product in the case of the Alaska mine in Cantwell’s crosshairs – is a critical technology-metal, no less than exotic elements like the Rare Earths. Case in point: The copper content of a single wind turbine weighs in at 3 to 4 ½ tons. Copper is also the source for Selenium, a little-known metal that is key to next-gen solar power systems.
So would stopping a U.S. copper mine save salmon? Or would it sacrifice wind and solar power we’re counting on to make the transition to a green economy? If we’re pro-salmon, we’ve got to be anti-copper – but if we’re anti-copper, won’t that make us anti-wind and anti-sun? Life isn’t always as simple as that “Save the Salmon” bumper sticker.
But for the NIMBY mentality, all that matters is stopping the mine. Where we get the metals we need is, well … someone else’s problem.
Turns out that’s true. It’s America’s problem – and all too often, it’s also a problem for people living in repressive regimes whose rulers thrive on the resource leverage we hand them.
In the case of copper, like so many other metals and minerals that the U.S. is blessed to have but fails to mine, demand we don’t meet domestically is met by foreign-sourced supply, with all the attendant strings attached. If U.S. mining companies operating under U.S. standards are sidelined, where will we get the metals and minerals we need for modern society? As I told the U.S. House Sub-Committee on Minerals and Energy Policy at its May 2011 hearing on Critical Metals, there are any number of countries that will be happy to feed our copper fix: We could buy copper from Russia, Angola, Afghanistan, DRC Congo or China - including in all likelihood copper mined from reserves in the Tibet Autonomous Region. There’s also copper in Pakistan and Iran. With the exception of Pakistan - rated “Partly Free” - all of the latter group are rated “Not Free” in the current Freedom House index.
Are we OK with “blood copper” supporting our windmills, our solar panels and our cellphones? Do we think these mines would pollute less or be policed more stringently than U.S. mines?
This is the serious discussion we need to have – not feel-good policy-posturing.