Minerals Surround Us

Mined and extracted materials literally surround us — the gypsum in sheetrock walls, the nails and screws that hold those walls together, the copper or aluminum wires that carry electricity through them, air ducts, light fixtures, the carpet. Mined materials are in the rivets of your jeans, the buckle on your belt and the machines that create the majority of clothes sold today. They’re in your smartphone, your not-so-smart phone, your sunglasses, your contact lenses, your pocket knife…

Look around you, pick an item, and ask yourself:

Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?

Whatever it is, think a bit about how it was made. Could it have been made without the use of metals or minerals?

Resource Independence

From time to time, “Energy Independence” becomes an important topic in the news—mostly when gasoline prices are up and Americans are feeling the pinch at the pump. That’s a shame, because it’s an important subject no matter what the price of oil is on a given day. The notion is sound—the less our country relies on outside sources of energy, the more control we have over our destiny. We often talk about “reducing our dependence on foreign oil,” but rarely seem to talk about reducing our dependence on foreign copper or iron or molybdenum. Why is that?

We should, because according to the U.S. Geological Survey, America imports about 35–40% of the copper it needs from foreign sources. And some of the major foreign producers of copper and other mineral resources are also the fastest growing consumers. Countries like China and India, that are just now revving up their industrial economies. Their national demand for mineral resources is growing, making the market for those resources more competitive. In short, in the future they may not be able to sell us the copper that we need, because their own domestic demand is so high.

According to supply and demand projections, we will continue to need copper more than ever in the coming years. Because as you’ll see, copper plays an important role in America’s push for Energy Independence. Green energy technologies like wind farms, solar panels, and electric cars all rely heavily on copper, and if we’re going to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, these alternative energy sources will be key.

Fortunately, the 80 billion pounds of copper estimated in the Pebble Deposit has the potential to meet approximately 33% of U.S. annual copper needs for many years. That’s one reason that the Pebble Deposit is of such interest — it’s one of the largest deposits of its kind in the world.

Civilization

It’s such a simple fact that we often overlook it, but here’s the thing: the difference between being a stone age culture and a post-stone age culture is metal. And pretty much around the world, copper was the first hard metal that people crafted for tools.

You may have heard of “Ötzi the Iceman,” whose frozen body was discovered in an Alpine glacier in 1991. He’s thought to have died around 3300 BCE. While Ötzi’s arrowheads were flint, he had a copper-headed axe among his possessions. Experts tested a replica and found that it could fell a tree in about 45 minutes… Not so fast by modern standards, but it was the high point of cutting-edge technology at the time.

Like many ancient innovations, the discovery of metalworking happened at different times around the world. In Europe it seems to have been about 7,000 years ago. In the Middle East, maybe 5,000. We don’t know as much as we’d like about the early days of metallurgy, because, typically, cultures developed metalworking before they developed writing. It’s literally prehistoric science, and it seems as if somehow metalworking was required for all kinds of social and intellectual advances.

What is it about metallurgy that changes a culture?

The Vitruvian Man

The most common explanation is that metalworking technology is an economic catalyst, like steam power in the 19th century, or the Internet in the 21st century. It’s a game-changer. And as wide-scale metalworking helped cultures to make more things, grow more food, and control larger areas, they needed better methods of record keeping and communication. Bureaucracy demands documentation, and when crude symbols and the spoken word weren’t getting the job done, richer systems of writing had to be developed. Once that happened, and complicated things could be written down, knowledge could be passed on and shared over long distances and across generations. And not just passed on, but built upon, improved upon… You can still recognize traces of the ancient Phoenician alphabet in the Latin letters we write with today, 3000 years later.

It would be a stretch to claim that copper was directly responsible for Danté and da Vinci and Mozart and the moon landing—and yet, those all came out of a society that was built on and sustained by the use of metal and minerals. The discovery and application of metallurgy is as transformative an event in the story of humanity as is the development of agriculture, and almost every modern undertaking relies on it in one way or another.

Green Technology

What role does copper have to play in the green technologies of today and tomorrow? Lots! And much of it has to do with a property of copper that ancient civilizations had no idea about: its electrical conductivity.

green technology powers the world

Copper is second only to silver as a conductive element, and being less expensive than silver, it’s the metal of choice for most electrical wiring applications. More than 60% of all copper is used in electrical wiring, in fact. You may have noticed, it’s electricity that powers our computers and lights and phones and appliances, our commuter rail systems and streetcars, and increasingly our own personal vehicles.

Solar Panels

solar panels

Recent trials at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy replaced the silver used in traditional solar cells with less-expensive copper and nickel, and found that the copper-based cells were more than 20% more efficient than the silver. What’s more, solar cells made with copper technology proved to be much more stable at temperatures that cause traditional silver cells to degrade.

So, for the same cost, using copper you can make more solar panels, that are more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity, and that last longer. Win, Win, Win.

Wind Energy

wind turbine

Here’s a fact that’s so basic you may never have thought about it before. Other than solar, whether it’s fueled by coal or diesel or natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, or tidal, all electricity is generated the same way: by rotating a coil of conductive copper wire inside a magnetic field (or vice versa). The fuel just provides the power to spin the coil. With coal, gas and nuclear plants the fuel heats up water, turning it into steam, which spins a turbine that turns a huge copper coil that generates electricity. With wind farms and hydroelectric dams, the wind or rushing water turns the turbine directly.

What that means is that copper is at the heart of every electric generator. And as we decentralize our electricity production, moving from monolithic power plants to more broadly distributed wind, tidal and micro-hydro, we need that much more copper to make it possible. A single large wind turbine—just one, in a wind farm that might have hundreds—requires more than four tons of copper.

Incidentally, Alaska has amazing potential for wind-generated energy. The US Department of Energy’s Wind Atlas of the United States classifies most of the Alaska Peninsula as either outstanding or superb for wind power, but almost all of coastal Alaska and interior mountain ridge lines have great potential. The 11 Fire Island turbines that CIRI brought online in September of 2012, and Kodiak Electric’s Pillar Mountain Wind Project, are just some of the first of a new era of clean energy for Alaska. The Pebble Project has the potential to be partially fueled by wind power too.

Electric Vehicles

electric vehicle

There are more and more electric vehicles on the road these days. While they’re no match for conventionally fueled vehicles in all applications, with their roughly 80 mile range and 3–4 hour charging time, current models can be ideal vehicles for commuting, getting groceries and zipping about town. And they’re improving every year. Moving to electric vehicles is another way in which we can reduce our collective foreign fuel bill, as well as our emissions. Of course, electric vehicles need copper—about twice as much copper as a conventional vehicle.

If we aim for an admittedly optimistic goal of an 85% electric fleet in the year 2050, it’s estimated that the auto industry would generate about 20% of global copper demand. Presumably it would be a slow ramp-up rather than happening overnight. But that increased demand has to be met by increased production, or decreased use elsewhere, and there are few unnecessary uses of copper today. As it can easily take 15 years or more to take a mineral deposit from discovery to active extraction, if going to green energy requires more copper, we have to plan ahead.

That’s one reason that projects like Pebble are so important—they provide the resources for these emerging technologies. Without an increase in copper production, market forces could drive the price of copper up to the point where it would no longer be cost effective to develop wind energy or electric vehicles.

Jobs

pebble hardhat

Job creation alone isn’t a good reason to mine. Let’s get that out on the table right now. If there’s not a market for the minerals being extracted, or if it costs more to get the ore than a selling price, then that’s a make-work project, not a business. Pebble is not a make-work project. It’s about helping America affordably meet its future demand for copper and other minerals. And yes, it’s also about doing it profitably, because that’s the role of private enterprise. A very happy side effect of that demand is that Pebble would need about 1,000 full time employees for the first 20–25 years to realize the Deposit’s potential. Pebble is a world-class Deposit with the potential to employ generations. Additionally, many jobs would continue for years after closure, through the final reclamation phase of site operation.

We’ll talk about employment and the economy of the region elsewhere on the site, but suffice it to say that in Alaska, mining offers some of the best-paying jobs going. The kind of stable, long-term jobs with training and benefits that aren’t around much anymore. Careers, in fact, not just jobs. And Pebble has committed to filling as many positions as possible from within the region, to ensure that we’re more than just a good neighbor.