Wind Energy and Copper Reserves

A topic that has been covered many times here at Resourceful Earth makes waves in Politico, of all places. Grover Norquist writes about the proposed Pebble Mine in an op-ed:

Debate over whether to extend the wind production tax credit is heating up, with President Barack Obama calling for an extension and lawmakers pushing for it on Capitol Hill. The Natural Resources Defense Council even declared “Wind Week” earlier this month.

Yet, in another example of the schizophrenic nature of this administration’s energy policies, at the same time that it is promoting wind energy, the Obama White House and its environmentalist allies are seeking to scuttle the development of a crucial component in wind turbines: copper.

Environmental groups, including the NRDC and the Sierra Club, are now lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency to shut down a major mining project in Alaska. That project, which would become Pebble Mine if completed, could be one of the world’s most productive copper mines. Though it would generate significant investment and create a bevy of high-paying jobs in a region in need of both, the EPA is now considering the unprecedented action of shutting down this project before the official plan has even been proposed.

Anti-mining groups have petitioned the EPA for a pre-emptive veto of a permit needed for the mine under the Clean Water Act. There’s just one thing — Pebble Partnership, the group seeking to develop Pebble Mine, has yet to even offer final plans and apply for the required permits. So these environmental groups are asking the EPA to disregard the established permitting process and pre-emptively reject the project. Such a move by the EPA would be unprecedented and alarming for a number of reasons.

Alaska would greatly benefit from the thousands of high-paying jobs that Pebble Mine would bring. It could generate $6 billion in regional investment, which would be a boon to the local community, as well as the employers and workers who would supply and construct the mine. However, the significance of the EPA’s pending decision on Pebble extends far beyond Alaska and mining.
Temporarily setting aside the question of as to whether or not energy sources should be subsidized, there are a number of ways that the government might help an energy source merely by getting out of the way. In this case, Grover’s argument is that the White House could help wind energy by choosing to let the proposed Pebble Mine move forward with the permitting process. Assuming the environmentalists are not able to shut down the permitting process (and the EPA does not pre-emptively deny the permitting), construction of the Pebble Mine would have a significant impact on copper prices: by lowering them.
Recall the amount of copper suspected to be in the ground at the Pebble site: 3 million tons, as it is the largest (known) undeveloped copper deposit in the world! And note that the demand for copper is increasing globally, in part due to copper’s use in wind turbines (3-4.5 tons per wind turbine!), but also because copper is used in a large number of high tech products which the world continues to demand.
Grover also reminds us of the importance of letting the permitting process run its course, not just for the proposed Pebble Mine, but as a safeguard to allow America to remain a country where businesses aren’t scared to invest:

“As is the case,” they wrote, “with the EPA’s overreach in attempting to veto water permits for West Virginia’s Spruce Mine (appropriately rejected by the courts), vetoing a fill permit for a potential copper mine before a plan has been filed is another ill-advised power grab by the agency. This agency action would have a dramatic chilling effect on investment in America and show that many Third World countries have more regulatory certainty than the U.S.”

If the EPA can pre-emptively shut down Pebble before a mine plan has been finalized and permit applications have been submitted, it can unjustifiably thwart any development project in any state in the country — be it a natural gas well in North Carolina or a hydroelectric plant in Maine.

This letter to Jackson contends that “stakeholders should be able to gather information about the potential impacts of a mining plan, the potential economic effects and the true risks of mining development near their communities once an actual plan has been proposed.” Pre-emptive rejection is ill-advised and detrimental to the EPA’s mission, just as would be the case with pre-emptive approval of the project.

If that weren’t enough, this EPA action would be a major violation of states’ rights, since Pebble Mine would be developed on state lands. Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty has stated that pre-emptive denial of permits would exceed the EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act.

Imagine a company, following all the rules, decides to begin studying a proposed natural resource project (or mine, or energy project, etc.) with the plan to eventually apply for a permit. Then, shortly before they apply for the permit, the EPA at the behest of radical environmentalists, throws all their work, time, and money out the window. It takes away the incentive to begin projects like this in the first place, because it isn’t clear you’ll get to see them through and make some money.

Grover finishes:

Obama has lofty goals for wind energy. He talks about having 80 percent of the country’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2035, with a heavy emphasis on wind. The Department of Energy reported in 2008, before he took office, that for wind energy to reach full potential, the number of U.S. wind turbines would have to increase by 14 percent annually — which means a lot of copper, the sort of quantities that Pebble Mine could easily provide.

Given this, it’s not surprising that the Obama administration and its green allies are considering shutting down Pebble Mine before it has had a hearing and despite the fact that such an action would be detrimental to their ambitious renewable energy goals.

It now seems clear that the only thing that will bring adult supervision back to the EPA and rationality to federal energy policy in general is the defeat of Obama in November.


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