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The case for copper: We need to mine if we want more fuel-efficient vehicles

Mining in the United States has become a difficult undertaking in the past few years, mainly due to environmental activism and the increasing constraints applied to new development. Yet despite the opposition, some companies are proceeding with development, because the rate of return on investment can be supported by the value of the mineral deposit and the technological innovations that are now available.

In addition, huge gains have been achieved in the possibilities for environmental protection, topographic reclaiming design, and water conservation and control. This is all necessary, because large copper deposits are not being readily discovered, and the demand for copper is escalating at a rate not seen in modern history. Competition for this metal will dramatically increase, most notably in China and India. Expecting foreign producers to meet a projected demand increase of more than 500,000 tons a year and beyond could lead to conflict and much higher prices.

A recent study by the Arizona State Department of Mines and Mineral Resources, and the Arizona State University Seidman Research Institute, has indicated that domestic copper production is on the decline. Within the past year, the Pinto Valley Mine in Arizona has permanently closed, and the outlook for several other mines in the United States remains doubtful. In addition, several operations are not in a position to substantially increase productive activity.

Considering it takes many years from concept to initial operations at any new mine, the demand for copper will continue to increase, and the cost of the metal will rise. This will also increase our dependence on foreign sources. Our balance of payments will rise, and our national wealth will diminish.

Copper windings, i.e., electric motors and generators, run this planet. Copper is a critical metal, mined mostly in Arizona for U.S. production, yet 33 percent of our country's needs are imported from outside of our national borders. If just half of that imported copper could be produced through domestic mining, thousands of jobs would be created. No longer would we have to export or outsource that employment outside our borders, and we would achieve payrolls that would greatly benefit communities with above-average incomes and with significant tax revenues. In addition, many thousands of supportive and construction jobs would also be created, which would benefit communities.

Most people understand that copper is used for wires and pipes, but don't have a clear concept of the command this metal has on everyday living. Let's cite the use of copper in today's modern automobile. All car manufacturers around the globe are working to achieve vehicles that will limit negative environmental impacts. Ironically, in order to achieve this goal, additional copper will be required. According to the Copper Development Association, more than 50 pounds of copper are used in today's cars, while cars being made for the future will nearly double that amount. That's because hybrids will need copper motors coming off gas and diesel engines to generate power to drive the wheels. Totally electric cars will need even more copper. Without copper, there would be no starter, alternator, battery, air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, heater, wipers, turn signals, CD/radio, electric windows and door locks or numerous other conveniences that we've come to enjoy in our cars today.

So how do we change this course and help ourselves at the same time? We encourage companies to take on the challenge and develop the mines that are necessary to sustain our quality of life—in an environmentally acceptable way. When the permitting authorities set up the parameters for development, and they are achieved and accomplished by the developer, the development must be allowed to proceed. Nothing is off the table in our community anymore.

All options for growth must be evaluated, and the rejection of any sustainable mining development, as is currently being expressed by local leadership, is uninformed and shortsighted. A new normal is emerging in this community, in this state and in this nation, and those considering a return to the pre-recession days are not paying attention to the direction in which this reality is going, nor the transformation taking place in our economy.

Dave Efnor is a retired mining engineer with more than 20 years in underground and surface mining, both domestic and international. He's lived in or called Tucson home for most of his life.

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