Ambler Copper: Part of the Problem or Part of the Green Energy Solution?
Last updated 9/24/2020 at 7:25pm
Governments around the world are collaborating to focus on addressing Climate Change and Global Warming. The Paris Climate Accord adopted numerous measures to "limit a global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels". Although there are many things that can be done to address climate change, the most meaningful and obvious is to use cleaner forms of energy and transportation.
Alaska has shown the world how energy resources can be responsibly developed, spearheading Alaska's transition from the rough and tumble new state that I grew up in to one providing comprehensive quality education, healthcare and transportation services for its residents – all while being good environmental stewards. Currently, fossil fuels make up 90 percent of both Alaska's revenues, and energy production on a global scale.
World leaders are trying to change that energy mix to meaningfully address Global Warming. While much of this transition is beyond Alaska's control, one thing we can do is decide to remain part of the problem or become part of the solution.
In my opinion, if you are truly concerned about Global Warming and consider yourself an environmental steward of Planet Earth – you must Think Copper!
Regardless of which forms of non-carbon-based energy the world transitions to – solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, or nuclear – they all require more copper to generate power.
Conventional coal and diesel take 1 ton of copper to produce 1 megawatt of power, whereas wind, solar and the others require 3 to 5 tons per MW ... plus additional copper wire to connect the power generation source to the grid. For example, large off-shore wind generators like CIRI's Fire Island Wind Farm take 10 tons of copper per MW – it takes a lot of copper to make a wind turbine ... and then even more copper to connect all the turbines to one another and to the grid.
Bottom line, Green Energy production requires on average five times more copper than conventional, carbon-based energy generation.
Now let's talk cars – specifically hybrid and electric cars. A typical Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicle uses 20 kilograms of copper per vehicle while an all-electric uses 80 kg of copper. In addition to copper, significant amounts of nickel, cobalt, manganese, graphite and lithium are also needed for the construction and operation of these cleaner forms of transportation.
If you want to get rid of the highly carbon dioxide (CO2) polluting ICE engine and replace them with hybrid or electric vehicles, then you need 3 to 4 times as much copper per car – even more for trucks, buses and mass transit. More electric vehicles will require more power generation and charging stations. Add it up and we need five times more copper to build electric vehicles and the infrastructure to support them.
So, if we want less CO2 going into the atmosphere, we need to produce more copper under it!
The absolutely great thing about copper is that it's 100 percent re-usable. Today, about 80 percent of the copper mined is eventually recycled. New supply chains for renewable energy, and hybrid and electric vehicles will improve this to well above 95 percent – resulting in a sustainable supply of copper and clean, green energy and transportation. There are solutions to reducing pollution and C02 in the atmosphere, but copper and a host of other base and specialty metals are required – no way around it!
We have choices to make as a society.
1. We can do nothing, and our Earth keeps warming up.
2. We can do nothing "in our backyard", leaving it to others to fill our global need for copper and cobalt knowing that it may involve child labor, corruption and human rights atrocities (see Amnesty International Report on mining in Africa: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/11/industry-giants-fail-to-tackle-child-labour-allegations-in-cobalt-battery-supply-chains/), or displacing water used by farmers like mines in Chile and Peru, where much of the world copper supply comes from (see http://www.bioone.org/doi/pdf/10.1659/mrd.1039).
3. We can support mining in Alaska, a jurisdiction with a long history of responsible resource development and absolutely no history of any significant disasters.
A prime opportunity for Alaska to contribute to both this global transition, and our own economic self-determination lies in the Ambler Mining District (AMD): a high quality, well known mining district containing over 10 Billion Pounds copper, significant cobalt and a host of other metals; where the State of Alaska and NANA, an Alaska Regional Native Corporation, specifically made land selection for mining as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) legislation; and that the Federal Government specifically granted a Right-of-Way to connect this metal-rich district with the Dalton Hwy and the rest of Alaska's infrastructure. Specifically, Section 201(4) of ANILCA states:
"Congress finds that there is a need for access for surface transportation purposes across the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (from the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road) and the Secretary [of the Interior] shall permit such access." (Emphasis added.)
Congress made it very clear what was intended with this unique and specific language in ANILCA.
To put this into perspective, 10 Billion lb of copper from the AMD can be used to build 56 million Electric Vehicles and reduce CO2 entering the atmosphere by 250 million metric tonnes every year. Remember, copper is 100 percent re-cyclable so these C02 reductions are sustainable!
How much CO2 will be emitted by the Ambler mining complex to mine 10 B lbs of Copper that could generate these Global CO2 reductions? Using liquid natural gas (LNG), site power generation would produce roughly 75,000 tonnes CO2/year. Add in transportation and refining emissions and the total CO2 emissions would be approximately 200,000 tonnes per year. That is a huge return on investment in terms of C02 reduction.
Alaska is a state that produces a lot of oil and will for the foreseeable future. Although we need to diversify our economy as a part of this global energy transition and wean ourselves off being so dependent on oil, it will take time. It won't happen overnight, but it is something we must work towards – a diversified economy is a stronger economy.
So, there you have it – alternative forms of energy and electric vehicles can help enormously to reduce C02 emissions and provide a sustainable solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but this Green Energy solution requires copper – a 100 percent recyclable metal.
The choice is ours – do we support mining copper and cobalt here in Alaska and be part of a sustainable energy solution, or do nothing and remain only part of the problem by outsourcing production of these resources to jurisdictions out of sight and out of mind?
Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse is the president and CEO of Trilogy Metals, a company dedicated to advancing exploration and development of high-grade copper-cobalt-zinc-lead-gold-silver properties in the Ambler Mining District Northwest Alaska. He grew up in Alaska and graduated from West Anchorage High School in 1972. He has more than 40 years of experience in the natural resource sector, including his role as president and CEO of NOVAGOLD, an exploration company he founded in 1997, and vice president of exploration for Placer Dome Inc. from 1990 to 1997. He received the Thayer Lindsley award in 2009 for his role in the discovery of the Donlin Gold deposit in Southwest Alaska and the Colin Spence award for his role in the discovery of the South Reef of the Bornite deposit in Northwest Alaska.