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Artificial Copper Demands Meet Artificial Bottlenecks

Net Zero's copper demands could be hard to meet.

What a society is able to build is closely tied to the material resources that are available. Both domestic and global supply chains have a bearing on what can be readily built. But for many resources, it’s not so simple as how much of mineral exists where on Earth. Extraction and refining capacity are oftentimes more obstructive factors than simple geography.

“Net zero” policies in the United States and Europe would require investment in mining and minerals on a massive scale. One of the minerals that is central to these plans is copper. 

Copper is a massive commodity, and is incredibly important for its conductivity and ductility. It conducts electricity and heat well, and can be drawn easily into wires for these uses. The mineral is central to all parts of the electricity supply chain, but EVs and other energy transition technologies utilize copper even more intensely than traditional electrical infrastructure.

Energy expert Daniel Yergin explained the copper requirements of EV’s in a clever way when he wrote in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year that, “California made a stunning decision last year—that by 2035 all new cars sold in the state must have at least 2½ times as much copper as conventional cars today.” The move in California, and elsewhere toward electric vehicles will come with different resource intensities, and the global metals market is not presently poised to meet that challenge. 

According to Dave Kirwin, a consulting Geologist who was one of the earliest to work on China’s Oyu Tolgoi deposit, “There’s no way we can supply the amount of copper in the next 10 years to drive the energy transition and carbon zero. It’s not going to happen,” he went on to say that “There’s just not enough copper deposits being found or developed.”

Many of the world’s biggest copper mines have been in operation for a very long time, many of them more than a century. Because of this, many mines that global supply has come to rely on are beginning to slow in output or lessen in quality. This has important implications for the copper supply as demand increases. 

The world’s largest copper supplier, Chile’s state-owned Codelco which supplied over 1.5 million metric tons of copper in 2022, has downgraded its forecast for 2023 output to between 1.31-1.35 million tons down from an earlier forecast of between 1.35-1.45 million tons. This is following an explosion at the companies biggest mine, El Teniente. The age of the company’s mines has also contributed to lower production and ore quality. 

There are currently several copper mine projects in the U.S. that could meet significant demand once operational, but have been continually stymied by the federal government in the development process, increasing costs, and delaying construction. Foremost among these are the Resolution and Rosemont Copper Mine projects in Arizona. 

All of this culminates in one of the main refrains of energy policy right now. That is, that artificially raising the demand for something in one way, while artificially constricting the supply in another, leads to poor if not disastrous unforeseen outcomes. To put it clearly, the mandating of technologies with high copper usage, coupled with a distaste for new copper mine construction is a recipe for short term price increases, unmet societal goals, and long term shortages. 

The solution to this problem is to remove the government interferences that are obfuscating this market on both ends, both streamlining the regulatory process for copper mine development, and reducing the artificial incentives to use more copper by allowing consumers to choose the cars that best suit their individual needs rather than forcing them to transition to EVs en masse.

Paige Lambermont is a Research Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in the Center for Energy and Environment. She covers the electrical grid, energy regulation, nuclear power issues, and other free-market energy topics. Paige has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from American University and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Idaho. She is also a Columnist Fellow at Catalyst.
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