The Biden administration paused finalizing an environmental impact statement for a copper mine in Arizona in order to meet with opposing tribes and review the Forest Service’s consultation, and it is delaying a decision about whether to allow Alaska to build a 211-mile road to a copper, cobalt and critical minerals mining area in the Brooks Range until 2024. Biden wants wind turbines, electric vehicles, medical equipment and weapons that need increasing amounts of these critical minerals, but he does not want to anger environmentalists who do not want mining in this country. As a result, he delays opening these areas to mining, allowing the Chinese to gain even greater advantage in developing its industry and pushing the United States father away from developing a critical mining industry as it can take a decade or more to obtain the permits and develop a mine.
Arizona Resolution Copper Mine
An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that was to be produced this spring for the Resolution Copper mine in Arizona is now being delayed. The EIS would trigger the advancement of a congressionally approved land swap in Arizona–a 2,422-acre parcel known as Oak Flat, located east of Phoenix, to Resolution Copper Mining LLC. The land transfer is the result of an “act of Congress,” which authorized the deal as part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to trade Oak Flat for other land in the state. The Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit that includes members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, indicated that the trade of Oak Flat will stop Apaches from being able to access the site to exercise their religious beliefs. Resolution Copper is a joint venture of Anglo-Australian firms Rio Tinto and BHP.
The ore deposit lies nearly 7,000 feet below the earth’s surface and it represents one of the most significant untapped copper deposits today, with an estimated copper resource of 1.787 billion metric tons. The mine has the potential to supply nearly 25 percent of U.S. copper demand and will create several thousand direct and indirect jobs, with an economic value of several billion dollars over the estimated mine life. According to Mila Besich, the Democratic mayor of Superior, a town of 2,500 that abuts the mine site, “Every time there’s another delay to this process means that investors in our community may decide this isn’t the place to invest because the federal government can’t make up its mind.” Endless delays equate to denial of projects in the capital-intensive mining business.
Amber Industrial Access Project
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will delay its final decision on the Ambler Industrial Access Project that would connect copper and cobalt mines to the road network by up to six months to the second quarter of 2024. The Ambler Road project would cross federal lands and a national preserve, and it is being opposed by environmental groups and some Alaska Native tribes, although some Native groups who originally opposed it now support the road in a region with very little economic investment.
The BLM is the lead federal agency developing an EIS under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to evaluate whether or not to grant a right-of-way for the proposed Ambler Road across BLM-managed lands. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) are cooperating agencies helping to prepare the EIS. The proposed project would construct a new 211-mile roadway on the south side of the Brooks Range, extending west from the Dalton Highway to the south bank of the Ambler River. The road would be open only to mining-related industrial use. Without access, the mineral assets associated with the Ambler Mining District would likely remain stranded.
Construction would occur in three phases over 4 to 6 years. The Alaska Industrial and Development Export Authority’s cost estimate for construction of the full build-out of the two-lane access road is $350 million; operations and maintenance costs are expected to range from $8 to $10 million per year. The access route would be developed as a Public-Private Partnership, which means that funds and bonds would be used in conjunction with private capital for the construction and operation of the Ambler Road. The roadway corridor is expected to operate for up to 50 years.
In 2020, the Trump administration approved the industrial road. The Biden administration, however, plans to partially rewrite the Trump administration environmental studies, which could result in a reversal of federal approvals for the project. The Biden administration claims that the Trump administration’s review failed to properly address the subsistence needs and rights of the Indigenous people living in the affected area, and it also failed to properly address cultural and traditional religious issues. According to Biden’s Interior Department, the Trump administration’s analysis failed to sufficiently consider the road’s impacts on caribou forage, lacked a “meaningful discussion” of impacts to water, including groundwater and salmon habitat, and failed to properly consult with tribes.
Instead, Biden Makes Deals for Minerals with Other Countries
In an attempt to gain more power over the supply chain that China currently dominates, U.S. officials have begun negotiating a series of agreements with other countries to expand America’s access to critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite. It is unclear, however, which of these partnerships will succeed, or if they will be able to generate anything close to the supply of minerals the United States is projected to need. Leaders of the G7 nations agree that the world’s reliance on China for more than 80 percent of the processing of critical minerals leaves them vulnerable to political pressure from China, which has a history of weaponizing supply chains in times of conflict. The G7 nations, together with the countries with which the United States has free trade agreements, produce just 30 percent of the world’s lithium chemicals and about 20 percent of its refined cobalt and nickel, but only 1 percent of its natural flake graphite. At the meeting, the United States and Australia announced a partnership to share information and coordinate standards and investment to create more responsible and sustainable supply chains.
Western countries embarking on the “green” energy transition are competing for increasingly scarce resources. While Japan has signed a critical minerals deal with the United States and Europe is in the midst of negotiating one, those regions have substantially greater demand for critical minerals than supply to spare. By one estimate, the global supply of lithium needs to increase by 42 times by 2050 to meet the rising demand for electric vehicles. Other mineral needs are estimated to increase exponentially, as well.
Europe’s reliance on Russian energy following the invasion of Ukraine illustrates the danger of foreign dependencies. The global demand for critical minerals is triggering a wave of resource nationalism that could intensify. Indonesia has progressively stepped up restrictions on exporting raw nickel ore, requiring it to first be processed in the country. Chile, a major producer of lithium, has proposed nationalizing its lithium industry to better control how the resources are developed and deployed, as have Bolivia and Mexico. And Chinese companies are still investing heavily in acquiring mines and refining capacity globally despite poor environmental and labor standards.
Last year, the White House issued a statement saying it was working with companies to expand the supply chain for U.S.-produced critical minerals such as those needed for computers and electric vehicles. Despite the statement, the Biden administration is repeatedly delaying the opening of mines in the United States that would provide the critical minerals needed, deciding to make trade deals with other countries instead, which is allowing China to obtain a greater foothold on the industry. The Biden administration is making the United States 4 times more dependent on China for critical minerals than it ever was dependent on the Middle East for oil, and no one in the Administration is addressing this apparently deliberate policy shortcoming.