On February 24, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order to bolster critical supply chains to help insulate the economy from future shortages of critical imported components by making the United States less reliant on foreign supplies. His executive order requires his administration to review critical supply chains with the aim of bolstering American manufacturing of semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, and other cutting-edge technologies. The president ordered yearlong reviews of six sectors and a 100-day review of four classes of products where American manufacturers rely on imports: semiconductors, high-capacity batteries, pharmaceuticals and their active ingredients, and critical minerals and strategic materials, like rare earths. Lithium-ion batteries that power most electric vehicles, for example, rely on raw materials—like cobalt, lithium, and rare earth elements—where China has a stranglehold on global supply.
While the United States is dependent on China for rare earths, it also imports critical metals from other countries. The United States imports about 40 percent of its supply of copper, with Chile being the major supplier of refined copper imports. Copper is essential in electrical equipment such as wiring and motors because it conducts both heat and electricity well. It also has uses in construction (e.g., roofing and plumbing), industrial machinery (such as heat exchangers), and power generation and transmission.
Pure copper metal is generally produced from a multistage process, beginning with the mining and concentrating of low-grade ores containing copper sulfide minerals, and followed by smelting and electrolytic refining to produce a pure copper cathode. An increasing share of copper is produced from acid leaching of oxidized ores.
In 2020, U.S. mine production of recoverable copper is estimated at 1.2 million metric tons and valued at $7.5 billion, 3 percent less than $7.75 billion in 2019, and 5 percent less than the output in 2019. Arizona was the leading copper-producing State and accounted for about 74 percent of domestic output, followed by Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Montana, Michigan, and Missouri. Copper was recovered or processed at 25 U.S. mines (18 of which accounted for 99 percent of mine production), 3 smelters, 3 electrolytic refineries, and 14 electrowinning facilities.
Between 2016 and 2019, around 59 percent of all refined copper imports to the United States came from Chile. Canada and Mexico were other important copper trading allies for the United States, providing 24 percent and 11 percent, respectively, of U.S. refined copper imports.
In 2020, the United States was the fifth largest source of copper mine production. Chile was first, followed by Peru, China, and the Congo. Chile’s mine production was almost 5 times greater than that of the United States. In refinery production, the United States ranked sixth behind China, Chile, Japan, the Congo, and Russia. China’s refinery production was over ten times that of the United States. The United States has the sixth largest copper reserves (48 million metric tons) behind Chile (200 million metric tons), Peru, Australia, Russia and Mexico. China has 26 million metric tons of copper reserves.
Recent Activity in U.S. Copper Mining
On January 15, 2021, the Forest Service issued an environmental analysis of the Resolution Copper mine in Arizona, which triggered a congressionally mandated 60-day window for the federal government to swap 2,422 acres at Oak Flat for 5,460 acres spread across Arizona. Congress approved a land swap in 2014 that would give Oak Flat to a joint venture in exchange for 5,460 acres scattered across Arizona. Resolution Copper estimates the low-grade ore that lies about a mile below Oak Flat to contain 40 billion pounds of copper. According to the 2014 law, enacted by President Obama, the land exchange would not begin until completion of the Forest Service’s National Environmental Policy Act review, which was originally scheduled for March 16.
On March 1, 2021, the Department of Agriculture directed the Forest Service to rescind its consent to the project. The site in the Tonto National Forest is said to be sacred to Western Apaches, who have raised concerns with the courts, but did not get a halt to the conveyance since it was congressionally mandated. Due to a letter from 22 House Democrats, the Department of Agriculture concluded that additional time is necessary to fully understand concerns raised by Tribes and the public, the project’s impacts and to ensure the agency’s compliance with federal law. According to the Forest Service, the decision to reconsider is in line with the Biden administration’s commitment to strengthening relationships with Native nations.
The 60-day clock will be restarted after the final environmental impact statement and draft record of the decision are republished. The deadline for the land exchange was originally set for March 16.
Another U.S. Critical Metal Mine in Trouble
Conservation groups sued the Interior Department over its approval of a lithium mine proposed in northern Nevada because it is located in sage grouse habitat. Environmentalists have criticized the Lithium Americas Corp.’s Thacker Pass project, indicating that the race to build electric-vehicle battery supply chains should not come at the cost of vulnerable species and scarce water resources.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the 5,700-acre open-pit project in January, about a year after beginning the environmental analysis, which environmentalists say would typically take longer than two years. According to the lawsuit, BLM did not explain how habitat destruction will affect sage grouse populations.
The Nevada conservation groups also raised issues about the validity of Lithium Americas’ mining claims in the lawsuit. Under the 1872 General Mining Act, prospectors can stake claims to federal land. Their claims become valid if they can prove through work and investment that valuable minerals lie beneath the land. The complaint indicates that BLM has offered no evidence that those claims are ‘valid’ or that BLM has determined whether the lands underlying these claims satisfy the Mining Law’s strict test for ‘valid existing rights.’
A federal judge halted construction at the project in 2019 because mine operator Hudbay Minerals Inc. planned to store waste on lands where the Forest Service had not determined the validity of the mining claims. That case is currently before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The conservationists’ challenge is the second to contest BLM’s approval of the Thacker Pass mine after a Nevada rancher sued last month.
Despite President Biden’s executive order to push for a domestic industry to mine and refine critical metals needed for electric vehicles, defense weapons, cell phones, and other electronics, his agencies are nixing critical metal mine development already initiated—a copper facility in Arizona and a lithium mine in Nevada. Priorities need to be addressed quickly to ensure the United States does not become dependent on foreign sources for our rare earth and critical metal needs. This becomes even more of a priority if the elements of the Green New Deal being promoted by the Biden administration come to fruition. Without these minerals, a move towards Green New Deal goals becomes impossible.