Where is it okay to mine copper?
“If you don't know where you're going, you will probably end up somewhere else.” – Lawrence J. Peter
In 1987, geologist Phil St. George discovered what would eventually become the largest undeveloped copper ore body in the world. Located in Southwest Alaska and additionally rich in gold, silver, and molybdenum, the Pebble deposit is now estimated to have a gross value of contained metals measuring over half a trillion dollars. The news of its impressive mineralogical characteristics sparked excitement in the mining community, especially for St. George’s employer, Cominco Alaska Exploration (known eventually as Teck Cominco, and today as Teck Resources).
There was, of course, a problem. The Pebble prospect sits upstream of Bristol Bay, home to one of the most sensitive and important ecological treasures in Alaska:
“All five Eastern Pacific salmon species spawn in Bristol Bay's freshwater tributaries. The bay is home to the world's largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery. The Kvichak River has the world's single largest sockeye run. The Kvichak drains from Lake Iliamna, which is downstream of the deposit. Salmon, herring and other fisheries account for nearly 75% of local jobs.”
Over the ensuing 35 years, a pitched battle unfolded between those who sought to develop the mine and virtually every major environmental organization in the world. Resistance was vehement and well-funded, on par with the fierce clash over the Keystone and Mountain Valley pipeline projects. Teck Cominco wisely gave up on the initiative in late-2001, choosing instead to option the property to Northern Dynasty Minerals, which went on to spend several hundred million dollars drilling, performing feasibility and environmental studies, and seeking permits from government regulators.
Alas, it was all for naught. Campaigning in Alaska in 2020, then-candidate Joe Biden vowed to kill the project if elected, declaring “[This] is no place for a mine.” After heated political debate, Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made good on his campaign promise in January, effectively killing the Pebble mine for good (emphasis added throughout):
“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday morning that it is effectively killing the controversial Pebble mine project in Southwest Alaska. The decision caps a decades-long battle over a region that is not only home to one of the world’s largest deposits of copper and gold, but also the world’s largest wild salmon run.
The EPA says the mine would cause too much damage to the salmon habitat, and it’s banning certain mining activities at the Pebble deposit. United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director Alannah Hurley called the EPA’s decision historic. It’s a move some Bristol Bay tribes have been pushing the EPA to take for 13 years…
The EPA is exercising its rarely-used ‘veto authority’ under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to prohibit mining the Pebble deposit. This is the 14th time in the history of the Clean Water Act and just the third time in the past 30 years that the federal agency has done so.”
Locals understandably cheered the EPA’s action, as did the fishing community and outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes, and we certainly don’t take pen to paper today to question their relief. Instead, Biden’s characterization that Bristol Bay “is no place for a mine” begs an important question in light of the simultaneous “electrify-everything” movement he and his environmental allies support—a movement that will necessitate developing dozens of world-scale copper deposits in incredibly short order. Just where, exactly, is the right place for a mine? Somewhere else, presumably, but where? And how do the proponents of the green energy transition propose to square their opposition to virtually every mining project in the developed world with the demand they are knowingly creating for mined metals?
A global tour of the copper mining sector unveils some rather uncomfortable reality checks that must inevitably be faced. Let’s embark on one.