Joe Biden's Buying Metals Abroad Could End Controversial Mining Projects

Officials within President Joe Biden's administration are working on a plan to collect the materials needed for energy-efficient vehicles without ostracizing environmentalists key to the Democratic voter base, who are often opposed to domestic mining projects, Reuters reported Tuesday.

Instead of mining materials needed to build electric vehicles domestically, two unnamed administration officials told Reuters Biden will focus on purchasing the metals overseas and bring them into the U.S. Once the raw materials arrive, American workers will turn them into things like batteries, so electric vehicles can be built.

The approach deviates from former President Donald Trump's push to speed up domestic mining projects, which typically undergo a thorough environmental review to assess potential risks. Though environmental concerns surrounding proposed mining projects differ from site to site, the procedures used to pull materials out of the ground often pose problems for the companies hoping to move their projects forward.

"It's not that hard to dig a hole. What's hard is getting that stuff out and getting it to processing facilities," one administration official told Reuters. "That's what the U.S. government is focused on."

Copper Queen Mine
The mayor of Superior, Arizona told Newsweek she was "very disappointed" to learn that President Joe Biden's administration is considering collecting raw materials needed for electric vehicle production overseas rather than pursuing domestic mining opportunities. In the photo above, the Lavender Pit at Copper Queen Mine, which opened in 1877 and was run by the Phelps Dodge Corporation from 1879-1975, is seen in Bisbee, Arizona on July 24, 2020. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Though one of the unnamed officials told Reuters the plan was designed in part to avoid butting heads with concerned environmentalists, the strategy has already received criticism from American mining advocates, who say domestic mining projects are necessary to some of the administration's other goals, particularly in energy production.

Rich Nolan, the president and CEO of National Mining Association, said in a statement shared with Newsweek that "made-in-America must include mined-in-America."

"Whether it's infrastructure, reshoring industry and critical supply chains, creating high-paying, stable jobs, or supporting the pivot to EVs and electrification," Nolan said, "U.S. mining is essential to every dimension of the administration's climate and economic agenda."

He emphasized that people should not lose sight of the big picture.

"Sourcing the minerals the world needs to transform our transportation and energy sectors isn't a case of 'either-or—it's 'and,'" Nolan said. "We need to work closely with allies on finding secure, responsible supplies, we need to encourage recycling, and we must encourage mining at home that develops our vast resources under world-leading environmental and labor standards."

The member of a labor union that supported Biden during his campaign for president and has worked with Rio Tinto, a mining company looking into a potential copper mining project in Arizona, also voiced support for keeping mining jobs in the U.S. instead of collecting raw materials overseas.

"Let's let Americans extract these minerals from the earth," the union member told Reuters.

The copper mine of interest to Rio Tinto near Superior, Arizona, is one such project that has generated debate among mining advocates and environmentalists. Known as Resolution Copper, the proposed project could meet about 25% of the total U.S. copper demand, according to project advocates. Copper is an essential material in the making of electric vehicles that is expected to gain in value as countries all over the world switch to electric vehicles.

Superior, Arizona
An antique car sits outside a cafe on April 22, 2021 in downtown Superior, Arizona. The town is at the center of a debate regarding a proposed copper mine, which is estimated could supply about 25% of the copper demand in the U.S. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Rio Tinto has been involved in the application process for years to secure the necessary permits during Democratic and Republican presidential administrations. But Resolution Copper was most recently placed on hold by Biden in response to an economic impact review that was published during Trump's final days in office.

While some Superior residents have said the project could bring economic opportunity to the region, opponents have questioned how the project may impact sites of cultural significance to local Native American tribes. Critics who oppose the project on environmental grounds have also raised concerns about the block caving method proposed for use at the mine site.

Henry Munoz, the chair of the Concerned Citizens and Retired Miner's Coalition who spent much of his career as a miner, recently told Newsweek the block caving method is concerning to him for a drought-ridden region that has in recent years struggled with water shutoffs.

"This block cave is very destructive, and it uses a lot of water," Munoz said. "I'm not against the mine, I'm against the method."

Roger Featherstone, the director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, told Newsweek last month that concern over the mine's anticipated water use is one of "a ton of reasons" why he is opposed to the project moving forward. Among the reasons he listed are concerns for nearby sites important to local Native tribes and his belief that the project's estimated economic impact on Superior's community has been overestimated.

In a statement shared with Newsweek, a Resolution Copper spokesperson reiterated the project's potential copper supply, and said the ongoing permitting process means that, even if the project is eventually approved, miners are still "years away" from beginning work.

"Resolution can supply up to a quarter of the United States' copper demand to help support a low carbon future, creating high-quality jobs and significant economic growth in Arizona," the spokesperson said. "We're years away from securing the permits required for mining activity, and from any decision by the partners to invest in developing this project fully."

The spokesperson said project advocates are continuing to consult with local community members and Native tribes in the area "to guide further shaping of the project, minimize impacts and build on the benefits it will deliver."

Oak Flats in Superior, Arizona
On Earth Day, a partially completed copper mine sits above Oak Flats, considered sacred ground to the San Carlos Apache, on April 22, 2021, in the Tonto National Forest outside of Superior, Arizona. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

"Resolution Copper will continue to engage with Tribes and community members as we follow the permitting process set out by the US government towards completing the Land Exchange," the spokesperson said, "which passed Congress with bipartisan support after nearly a decade of public consultation."

Superior Mayor Mila Besich, who has been an advocate for the Resolution Copper project, told Newsweek she was "incredibly disappointed" to learn that the Biden administration is pushing to cultivate raw materials overseas rather than in domestic mines.

"It appears that the Biden administration is not going to pay attention to domestic mineral production for communities like Superior," Besich said. "Arizona's copper corridor is part of that global supply chain, and developing our natural resources—not only for our national defense, but the global economy—is critically important."

Besich said the news was especially "frustrating" in light of the multi-step permitting process that Resolution Copper has been going through for years, which she said is designed "to say that we can open mines and operate them safely in America."

"Today's news is just very, very disappointing," she said.