SUPERIOR, Arizona – As Wendsler Nosie finished his evening prayers sitting in front of a mesquite fire, a ceremonial staff of yucca festooned with eagle feathers at his side, he gazed sternly toward a distant mesa where mining companies hope to extract more of 1 billion tons of copper.
That mine could help tackle climate change by helping the United States replace fossil fuels and combustion engines with renewable energy and electric cars. But for Nosie, former president of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, it’s the latest insult in a bitter story. The tribe views the rolling hills and hidden canyons under which copper lies – an area of Arizona called Oak Flat – as a corridor to God inhabited by holy spirits. The tribe reservation is about 35 miles away.
“We’re tackling that big mainstream way, this corporate lifestyle,” he said. “They are two ways of thinking that collide. There is no room for both. One will be destroyed.
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The two mining giants behind the project, Rio Tinto and BHP, have a lot of experience with environmental conflicts. But in this case, company executives have argued that their project, known as the Resolution, will benefit the environment by helping to increase the use of renewable energy and electric cars and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The companies have already spent more than $2 billion on exploratory work and preparing the project. They have the support of many local and state elected officials.
“Copper is critical to the energy transition,” said Vicky Peacey, project director of the mine. “Climate change is the biggest crisis facing the world. We have to do it right.
The battle over copper in southern Arizona highlights a growing dilemma for policymakers and investors eager to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy. Making this switch will require new mines, sometimes in pristine and sacred lands, to extract much more copper, lithium and other metals. The extraction of coal, oil, and gas also has significant environmental costs, but they often come from places, such as Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming, with well-established mines and oil and gas fields and little local opposition to such activities.
Copper is abundant in the Western Hemisphere, so its availability has been taken for granted. The US was nearly self-sufficient in copper until the 1990s. But as demand is growing rapidly and older mines have been depleted, domestic sources provide only half of the country’s needs.
The US could import two-thirds of copper by 2035, according to S&P Global. Relying on other countries may not be a good strategy, energy experts said, because even copper-rich countries like Peru and Chile are struggling to produce more amid political turmoil and growing opposition to mining.
At stake are the ambitious climate goals set by President Joe Biden, who wants to cut US greenhouse gas emissions 50% to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030 and effectively bring them to zero by 2050. these goals, the country will need far more wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles, all of which will require far more copper. An electric car, for example, contains three times more copper than a comparable petrol-powered vehicle.
“Much of the energy transformation is about electrification, and copper is the metal of electrification,” said Daniel Yergin, energy historian and vice president of S&P Global. “But to achieve the 2050 net-zero carbon goals that the US and the EU have embraced, global copper production needs to double, and it’s very difficult to predict how that will happen.”
Peacey said in an interview that his company was willing to compromise with the local Apache. The executives have already scaled back the scope of their mine from their original proposal. But many Apache leaders say no compromise is possible as long as the miners plan a drilling technique that, over decades, would produce a gaping canyon, killing wildlife and oak trees.
“Would someone destroy Mount Sinai to drill for oil?” asked Nosie, who lives in protest in two caves that will eventually be disturbed if the mine is built. He said he was ready to go to the Supreme Court to defend what he called the constitutional right of the Apaches to practice their religion.
Nosie, 64, said her ancestors lived at Oak Flat in the mid-19th century before US soldiers took them to the reservation where the tribe is still based. As a child he would visit the area with his grandfather. “He opened my eyes,” Nosie recalled.
Nosie’s efforts have already helped stall the project for years, and more years of delays are likely.
US copper production, currently at 1.2 million tons a year, is declining because the nation’s largest mine, Morenci in Arizona, is in decline and could be depleted in 20 years. The proposed Resolution mine, 6,800 feet underground and 60 miles east of Phoenix, would produce about 40 billion pounds of copper over 40 years, according to Rio Tinto.
The Mine Resolution project was initially made possible nine years ago when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., inserted a federal land swap into an appropriations bill that could eventually open up the Oak Flat area to multiple copper mines. A 2,400-acre tract of Tonto National Forest, which includes Oak Flat, would be exchanged for resolution-controlled parcels within 60 days after a regulatory process concluded.
A required environmental review was completed in the final days of the Trump administration, but the US Forest Service halted the exchange in 2021 after Biden became president. The administration promised to consult extensively with Native American tribes before proceeding with the exchange.
Separately, a group led by Noise and Becket, a conservative non-profit organization formerly known as the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is seeking an injunction to halt the land swap until the merits of the religious issues are resolved by the legal system.
A federal court denied their motion, a decision upheld by a three-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June. This year, a panel of 11 judges from the 9th Circuit will hear an appeal. Two other federal lawsuits have been filed alleging that the mine would violate environmental and historic preservation statutes.
A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service, said officials could not comment because of the litigation. But Biden administration officials have tried to walk a fine line between respecting the views of tribesmen and environmentalists opposed to specific projects and the president’s desire to increase domestic production of important commodities.
There are differing opinions on the merits of mining on the San Carlos Apache Reservation as well. Some see mining as an affront to their traditions, while others see it as an economic opportunity and a source of employment.
“It’s a business opportunity and I’m a single parent,” said Jolene Quade, 35, who sells fried bread from a pushcart in San Carlos.
Juaniko Goseyun, a 22-year-old freelance videographer, said her views were shaped by a visit to Oak Flat and a discussion about the mine with Nosie in class.
“It made me feel that if there is going to be a mine, everything that is ancient and sacred to us will be lost,” she said, referring to the Apache petroglyphs and fire pits she saw during her visit to Oak Flat.
Even some conservationists oppose the project, arguing it would ultimately reduce habitat for endangered species, including the hedgehog cactus and the narrow-headed garter snake. Pumped groundwater could pollute rivers and streams.
“There will be mining, but that doesn’t mean there has to be mining in every place,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon chapter.
Peacey counters that Resolution’s site is one of the few remaining large, affordable copper shops. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” she said. She said the company’s plans for storing mining waste, or tailings, “will meet the most stringent design criteria of any global standard.”
The mine will be equipped with extensive sensors, autonomous vehicles and climate control systems that operate more than 1 mile below the surface, where temperatures can reach 175 degrees. The project will cost billions of dollars.
As an elevator carries mine workers down a shaft at 500 feet per minute, there is a high-pitched clang of cooling fans and the hiss of compressed air. A few dozen electricians, mechanics and welders are maintaining the water systems and studying the mine.
Construction could take eight to 10 years, and the mine could eventually employ 3,700 workers, according to Resolution, reviving Superior, an old mining town.
There’s plenty of copper in Arizona, said Kray Luxbacher, head of the University of Arizona’s mining and geological engineering department, but there are daunting legal hurdles to starting new mines or smelting plants.
“The Biden administration’s intentions are good, but they won’t unless they find a way to find the raw materials,” he said.
Goldman Sachs expects global copper demand to outstrip supplies by 2025.
“I’m much more concerned about copper than lithium, because if you’re a battery manufacturer you can find ways to use less lithium,” said Michael Webber, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “Copper is a big problem for electric vehicles, but it’s also a big problem for wind, solar, batteries, transmission lines, and even nuclear power plants.”
Recycling could help, but building enough capacity to reuse copper in large volumes could take about a decade, energy experts said.
Arizona remains. Superior mayor Mila Besich is eager to usher in a mining renaissance, but she’s not overly optimistic.
“The mine is in bureaucratic purgatory,” he said. “It can’t be all or nothing, and that’s the problem.”
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