America's Environmental Imperialism

America's Environmental Imperialism
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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.

And the danger is far larger than the derailment of just one mine. Mix the Cantwell approach with traditional “Senatorial courtesy,” and any U.S. project - and the millions and even billions of investment riding on it - would be a single senator away from sudden death at any moment. It's a little like the judge presiding over a trial cutting off the witness on the stand in mid-sentence, and saying: “OK, I've heard enough. Let's just stop here and go with the death penalty.”

For companies in the mining sector, the trial metaphor is apt. There’s a process in place, which in the case of mining projects involving federal lands, includes both state and U.S. Government review. In the case of the Alaskan copper project, no less than 67 federal, state and local agencies are involved in the permitting process. With potential projects already running this governmental gauntlet, do we really want to throw in a “sudden death” provision?

It’s not hard to guess what would happen. In a world where capital is free, we’d see an exodus of mining capital to friendlier countries with mineral wealth - places such as Canada, which boasts 7 provinces among the top 10 best jurisdictions for mining worldwide. (Strangely, despite all that digging, Canada boasts some pretty good salmon, too.)

For years, committed environmentalists have cited the credo: Think Globally, Act Locally. But when it comes to the moral calculus of resource development, do we really do that? Every drop of oil we don’t buy from Canadian oil sands projects is another dollar in the hands of Hugo Chavez, Russian kleptocrats and Middle East potentates. Every pound of copper we fail to mine domestically provides price support for rogue regimes that make life more difficult for their democratic dissidents than a salmon swimming upstream.

As a society, we’re not going to surrender our cellphones and laptops, park our Priuses and bike our way to Walden Pond. So let’s look global reality in the face and find a way to mine the materials we need for modern life right here at home – or admit that the price of our NIMBY preening is paid in pollution, human rights abuses and economic hardship. Just not our own.

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