Oak Flat copper mine project in Arizona stalled amid tribal, public opposition

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A deal is not a deal until it is done, goes the old adage.

Mining projects are notorious for falling afoul due to presuming agreed terms will be played out as expected.

The Financial Times reports on the conundrum BHP and Rio Tinto face in developing the Oak Flat copper ore body in Arizona.

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Oak Flat copper project faces challenges

mine mining

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Oak Flat, 65 miles east of Phoenix, is home to a giant underground ore body. The ore body holds enough copper to satisfy 25% of U.S. demand for 40 years, the Financial Times reports.

That is a very sizeable asset to the U.S. economy and a strategic resource if ever there was one in a world of increasingly strident resource nationalism.

But Resolution Copper, a joint venture between Rio and BHP that wants to mine it, has been facing opposition from the San Carlos Apache Tribe, for whom the site is said to have special religious significance.

That is not an unusual situation in democracies the world over, with indigenous tribes whose rights are respected and enshrined in law.

Nor, it must be said, does Rio have a great track record here.

Just last year, it wilfully destroyed a 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal site in Australia to make way for a mine extension. For Rio, the action became a public relations disaster (not to mention an archaeological disaster). It is something that will takes years for it to overcome.

However, in this instance, the joint venture Resolution Copper, 55% owned by Rio and 45% by BHP, had an agreement signed in 2014 that would grant the miners right to develop the resource. That deal includes some 2,400 acres of national forest land including Oak Flat, in exchange for 5,400 acres of land owned elsewhere.

Land swap

The problem is, in part, that the recipients of this land swap is not the tribes, but Uncle Sam.

According to National Geographic, early this year the government receives the 5,400 acres considered of equal monetary value. However, there appears to have been no account of the area’s historical significance to local people. That land swap was contingent, the Financial Times reports, on the U.S. Forest Service completing a Final Environmental Impact Study (FEIS), which would assess the potential effects of the mine development. Again, though, it doesn’t appear to have considered the loss of the tribal lands.

The FEIS released the report and gave its approval in the final days of the Trump presidency. That approval, however, now been rescinded by the Biden administration. As such, the development is now in jeopardy as the government considers the concerns raised by tribes and the public.

Tribal, public opposition

Both tribal and public opposition remains widespread.

The underground mine is some 7,000 feet below the surface. The gradual removal of the ore body over 40 years — although mined via shafts underground, not open cast — would still result in a two-mile wide crater and the loss of water resources in the area, according to ABC15 news, As such, it could potentially devastate the local environment, opponents say.

Unfortunately, ore bodies can only be mined where they exist. There is only so much high-grade copper in the world. Compromises often must be made. Whether a solution will be found in the case of the Oak Flat copper project that will allow the massive ore body’s eventual exploitation remains to be seen.

Rio and BHP have invested $2 billion into survey work so far. They may have to invest much more before the project sees the light of day.

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