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The copper tradeoff: Protecting today's lands versus preserving tomorrow's climate

(Graphic by Heather LaPierre/WBUR)
(Graphic by Heather LaPierre/WBUR)

Copper is key to our green energy future.

But copper extraction is deeply harmful to the environment now.

Episode two of On Point’s special series “Elements of energy” explores how to resolve that contradiction.

Today, On Point: The copper tradeoff.


Aimee Boulanger, executive director for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA).

Michael Webber, John J. McKetta centennial energy chair in engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Also Featured

Isaias Ramos, biologist at the Environmental Advocacy Center in Panama.

Sarah Makumbe, responsible mining program manager at Anglo American. Earlier this year, two of their mines in South Africa, Mototolo and Amandelbult were voluntarily audited.

Paul Hawkes, retired rancher from Sweetgrass County, Montana.

Heather McDowell, VP of legal and external affairs at the Sibanye Stillwater mining company.


Part I

PRES. JOE BIDEN: I’ve signed a historic piece of legislation here in the United States that includes the biggest, most important climate commitment we have ever made in the history of our country.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: President Biden set the goal. Cut U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030.

BIDEN: So let this be the moment we find within ourselves the will to unlock a resilient, sustainable economy to preserve our planet.

CHAKRABARTI: Achieving that goal will require vast amounts of lithium.

This lithium deposit is one of the richest ones in North America.


STEVE KESLER: We are at probably an inflection point in the annual demand for copper.


SIDDHARTH KARA: The only way to survive in that part of the Congo is to pick up a strip of rebar or their bare hands and start digging in pits for cobalt, because it’s everywhere.


CHRISTOPHER POLLON: And if you’re looking at a Ford F-150 Lightning, we’re looking, I think, almost at about 180 pounds of just nickel in that battery.

CHAKRABARTI: Each element serves a different purpose, but they all have one important thing in common.

DOUG WICKS: Without mining, there will not be a clean energy transition.

CHAKRABARTI: But increasing mining to meet our clean energy needs comes at a cost.

AIMEE BOULANGER: If we’re going to be using these materials, we need to first of all be honest with ourselves and be more aware.

CHRISTOPHER POLLON: Especially if you look at the environmental and social costs of becoming a smelting and mining and battery hub to the world.

FARRELL SMITH: It’s not up to you to decide what to do with this land. This is their land.

This is their ancestral land, and they don’t want this to happen.

CHAKRABARTI: I’m Meghna Chakrabarti, and this is an On Point special series.

DAVID ROBERTS: There is no math about the new demand for these minerals.

PROTESTOR: All the mining companies, they’re billionaires, and we’re still poor, destitute, struggling!

DAVID ROBERTS: The most negative story you could tell, the worst assumptions you could project.

PROTESTOR: To take the lithium out of this ground is another form of genocide, or cultural genocide.

DAVID ROBERTS: Still, it’s going to be a vast improvement on the ongoing apocalypse that is the fossil fuel economy.

CHAKRABARTI: “Elements of energy: Mining for a green future.” Episode 2. The copper tradeoff.

Ernest Scheyder is author of The War Below: Lithium, Copper, and the Global Battle to Power Our Lives.

He’s got our Copper 101.

ERNEST SCHEYDER: Copper is one of the best electricity conducting metals, and it’s used across the global economy so much that it’s been given the nickname Dr. Copper, because the price for this reddish metal is seen as a barometer of global economic health.

CHAKRABARTI: But Dr. Copper can also make the land sick.

In the heart of Panama, along the Caribbean coastline, lies one of the most biodiverse rainforests in the world. It’s home to more than 2,000 different species. And at 13,000 hectares, it’s almost as large as the entire city of Miami. But since 2019, instead of lush jungle, this area is now Cobre Panamá, one of the largest open pit copper mines in the world.


ISAIAS RAMOS: So with the building of this project, you had 100 square meters, you had 2,000 species, and now you only have rock. Before that was all green and full of life.

CHAKRABARTI: Isaias Ramos is a biologist at the Environmental Advocacy Center of Panama. His colleague, Joana Abrego, serves as his translator. Canada-based First Quantum Minerals runs Cobre Panamá.

The $10 billion operation produces 1.5% of all the world’s copper. It provides 7,000 jobs and generates 5% of Panama’s GDP. But most Panamanians want the mine to go. Last year, the Panamanian government quietly and quickly extended First Quantum’s contract for 20 years, with terms highly favorable to the company.


Panamanians took to the streets in the largest nationwide protest there in almost 40 years. For weeks, roads closed, schools shut down, supermarkets emptied. One of the protesters spoke with Canadian TV station W5.

PROTESTOR (TRANSLATION): I think that this will be an unstoppable war. If they take our lands and contaminate our rivers, what will we live off?

What will we leave our family members and our children? We are fighting for that mine to be shut down. We know it won’t happen overnight, but we want it to end.

CHAKRABARTI: In 2021, an inspection by Panama’s environment ministry found more than 200 infractions, including battery acid contamination in the soil and the illegal discharge of waste into the sea.

Biologist Isaias Ramos, again with Joana Abrego, translating.

RAMOS: There was no continuous monitoring of the advances for the community. It’s a colonial scheme in the area, that the relationship within the company and the community is almost colonialism.

CHAKRABARTI: Ramos says given Panama’s history with colonialism, people were no longer willing to tolerate being ignored by their own government and a Canadian corporation.

RAMOS (TRANSLATION): The message was rather simple. It was Panama is worth more without mining. Panama is green, the true world of Panama is green.

CHAKRABARTI: Last fall, Ramos’s group, the Environmental Advocacy Center of Panama, brought suit against First Quantum’s contract. And late November, Panama’s Supreme Court ruled that the new mining contract violated 25 articles of the country’s constitution, including the right to live in a pollution free environment, the obligation of the state to protect children’s health and its commitment to promote the economic and political engagement of indigenous and rural communities.

On November 28th, President Laurentino Cortizo ordered the Cobre Panamá mine closed. However, it may not remain permanently closed. First Quantum is claiming the closure is an alleged breach of a Canada-Panama free trade agreement. It intends to take Panama to international arbitration. And investors have filed at least three lawsuits against Panama itself.

The company says closing the mine properly could take 10 to 15 years and cost $1 billion. And then there’s the possible blow to the world’s clean energy future. According to First Quantum, Panama’s mine generates enough copper for six million electric vehicles or 10,000 large wind turbines every year.

That’s the copper tradeoff. Biologist Isaias Ramos says he supports green energy, but questions at what cost and who must pay for it.

RAMOS (TRANSLATION): How much of our unique natural ecosystems we have to sacrifice to satisfy the needs of the first world? Our country is not responsible for the emissions. Actually, our country is emission negative. But even considering the current climate crisis, how much we have to continue sacrificing so someone can have an electric car?

CHAKRABARTI: Biologist Isaias Ramos, with his colleague Joana Abrego, helping to translate. Joining us now is Michael Webber. He’s Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin. Professor Webber, welcome to On Point.

MICHAEL WEBBER: Thanks so much for having me. I look forward to the conversation.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, explain what role does copper play exactly in our green energy future? What do we need it for?

WEBBER: Copper is really valuable as an electrical conductor and a thermal conductor, so it’s really good at moving electrons around and really good at moving heat around. If you think about wind turbines or solar panels or batteries or just an expanded electrical grid, it needs a lot of ability to move electrons around and to manage them properly and copper’s a great material for that.

It’s also pretty easy to turn into wires or sheets or strips and easy to handle. So it’s a really good material for what we need with clean energy.

CHAKRABARTI: That first question was almost the most obvious one, right? Because copper is one of the oldest elements that humankind knows of that moves electrons around, right?

Many of us still live in homes that have copper wire lingering in the walls. But why is it that we’re still so reliant on it? Can we imagine a future with those wind turbines or electric vehicles that would find something else other than an increased consumption of copper to power those pieces of technology?

WEBBER: There are better conductors like gold that are more expensive or rarer, and there are cheaper materials, different metals like aluminum that also work, but they don’t work quite as well. So it’s always a tradeoff between performance and cost abundance, ease of use and things like weight, as well.

Aluminum is really light. But doesn’t conduct as well. So copper is just really good. Nature made in a way that’s really handy for the things we like to use it for, especially as we grow the need for electricity for all that. Video games and data centers and that kind of thing.

CHAKRABARTI: We keep talking about electric vehicles in this series because I think it’s just one area that’s very easy for people to understand why we might need more mining to help create more electric vehicles.

I’m seeing here that EVs can use, what, 170 pounds of copper in each vehicle, which is quadruple the amount used in an internal combustion engine.

WEBBER: Yeah. Think of a typical gasoline car might have 50 pounds or a little less of copper inside of it. So that’s one thing to keep in mind, is the conventional system also uses a lot of copper.

We use copper already for society and we’re just talking about using more copper for the cleaner versions of society. My electric vehicle, which I own, or other people have, will have some like 170 to 200 pounds. So it’s like a quadrupling, as you said, of the copper and that’s significant. However, it means I don’t have to use gasoline. And I use something like that much weight of gasoline every three months.

So I will extract more mass of copper from the earth to make the battery and let the electric vehicle go and that kind of thing. And also, for the motor inside the electric vehicle. But then I won’t have to extract from the earth that many pounds of gasoline to fuel the car. So it’s a tradeoff in terms of mass or tonnage extracted from the earth that pays back within a couple of months.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now we started with a quick look at what’s happening in Panama with the Cobre Panamá mine. We’ve just got a short bit of time before our first break, Professor Webber.

First of all, it’s impossible to truly fathom how large that mine is. The mine is the size of the city of Miami. Is that typical for copper mines?

WEBBER: That’s a big mine, but mines are that big. And you can sometimes see them from space, or if you fly over mining areas, you’ll see it from your airplane window.

These are massive operations. And obviously there’s a lot of topographic impact right there. Like it’s disturbed the land at the mine, but then when you include all the runoff and air pollution and other things, the impact can be even larger.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: You’re back with On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti and today is episode two of our special weeklong series, Elements of energy: Mining for a green future. Our focus today is on the copper tradeoff, or preserving today’s lands versus protecting tomorrow’s climate. And Michael Webber is with us. He’s at the University of Texas in Austin.

And Professor Webber, a couple of quick questions to help us better understand the environmental impacts of copper mining. So first of all, with Cobre Panamá still at the front of our minds, is most of copper mining around the world done via that large scale, open pit mining?

WEBBER: One thing that’s interesting about copper is how concentrated its production is and controls even more concentrated than, say, oil production.

Two countries, Chile and Peru, are responsible for more than a third of global copper production, for example. So you have these very large mines, and they’re often open pit, or these mines that are open from the top, you can see them. Think of the old days where people would build a tunnel to go into the land to get the mine, looking like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

They go into these little tunnels. And that’s a different approach. You either remove the copper from the mountain or remove the mountain from the copper. And these days we remove the mountain from the copper. Like we remove the land to get to the copper. That’s typically cheaper and actually safer for the workers, but very disturbing to the land as you can imagine.

And they can be quite large.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. In Panama, it’s basically just erased the area that was forest, right? So the obvious impacts to land and habitat are there. Are there any other sort of water or air impacts to the act of pulling the copper ore out of the ground, before we even talk about processing?

WEBBER: Absolutely. So the three environmental categories are land, water, and air. That’s what you have to worry about. And the land disturbance is visual. It’s really easy to see. It’s obvious. They remove the land. And so that means also impacting the biodiversity at the surface of the land, plus also in the subsurface.

So there’s some very big impacts there. The water impacts are also significant in some cases. Because when it rains, water trickles through the mine or through the land and picks up some heavy metals or the minerals and gets into the waterways and can pollute the downstream rivers or different water bodies.

That’s a concern. And you also have to worry about dust or pollution from the equipment affecting the air shed. So people downwind might also get pollution. And sometimes to manage the dust, you might add water to the ground to keep the dust from getting in the air and then that increases the risk of the water pollution.

So some of these things are in tension with each other, but very impactful without a doubt. The part you don’t see, that we’re hoping the copper enables though, is avoided pollution somewhere else. And so Panama or wherever the mine is, gets more air, land and water pollution right there. But then where I’m using my electric vehicle, I don’t have the tailpipe pollution there.

So someone in Miami has less air pollution for a mine the size of Miami and Panama getting more pollution. This is the tradeoff that makes it very complicated. Because the winners and losers aren’t the same people always, and they’re in different locations.

CHAKRABARTI: So then let’s move to the actual process of separating the elemental copper from the copper ore, because I’ve read that the technology has gotten so good that the ore can contain as little as 10% copper, meaning that 90% of it has to somehow be separated, which is hugely water intensive, right?

And also, chemically intensive. How does that process happen?

WEBBER: Yeah. So there’s a mechanical inputs like grinding and crushing, there’s heat inputs or chemical inputs or water inputs. All of these inputs cost money, but improve your yield of how much you get out. And all of them have a downside requirement.

If you had to buy energy from someone and was that energy or maybe produced on site, was that energy produced in a clean way? Where are you getting the chemicals from? How are they made? And what’s the runoff or the downstream impacts of the chemicals, everything else. So all these inputs have a cost and a tradeoff.

And over time, copper, we’re mining and extractions, separations all gets better. So that’s good news, but it’s still intensive. And if we’re talking about quadrupling global copper output, it’s going to be impactful. There are new technologies out there. There’s a startup called Ceibo that we looked at that has a new way to leach out the minerals.

This is like copper oxides and copper sulfides. And so there’s different ways that copper is contained in the seams or in the minds. And so you need different processes to separate it out. And I think there should be pressure to clean it up because it’s pretty dirty, but that copper sure does enable some clean lifestyle downstream, which is nice.

But tell me a little bit more, what kind of chemicals are used to separate the actual elemental copper from the ore, and what are the dangers of the waste products produced there?

WEBBER: Yeah, and I don’t have all the chemicals in my head right now, so I don’t remember right now, and I’m just a dumb mechanical engineer, so I use hammers and wrenches instead of chemicals, but I recall, but they’re pretty harsh chemicals, acids like that to leach out the copper.

Then you get these tailing ponds or mining tails that are pretty gross that you have to contain, unless you have a flood or runoff or the dam breaks and the ponds break, then you get it downstream. But it’s pretty harsh stuff, right? These aren’t just your cleaning chemicals at home to keep your windows clear.

It’s more intense than that. Industrial chemicals that take a lot of energy to make and then have a lot of downstream risk for sure.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s so fascinating how complex the copper mining process and smelting process is. Because you mentioned Chile, one of the world’s top suppliers of copper, they’ve also got a long-term drought that they’re dealing with.

I’m seeing here that one of the major copper mines in Chile in order to get around that drought is building its own desalination plant. I appreciate you going through step by step what copper mining entails, right? So now we have a clear view in our minds of, okay, here are the major environmental costs, right?

Just the land surface, as you said, or removing the mountain to get to the copper, the potential water impacts, air impacts, biodiversity impacts. So that leads us to this question of, If copper is so critical to our green energy future, excuse me, professor, is there a better way to mine it? So let’s take a look at one possible example.

And interestingly, we’re going to turn to one of the biggest mining companies in the world to understand why. What could be coming down the line?

Sarah Makumbe is the sustainability certifications manager at the UK based Anglo American. It’s one of the largest mining companies in the world, with mines around the globe producing vast amounts of platinum, diamonds, nickel and of course – copper. In 2023, Anglo American’s revenues topped $30 billion.

Makumbe says since 2005 – the company has made efforts to mine more responsibly.

SARAH MAKUMBE: Mining as an industry has lost credibility due to events that have happened that result in social and environmental impacts and harm. And for mining companies to mark their own homework, we don’t have that credibility anymore.

CHAKRABARTI: So in 2008, Anglo American joined other mining companies, customers, trade unions, community, and environmental groups and NGOs to establish universally accepted, responsible mining standards.

But here’s the catch – an independent third party, not the mining companies themselves, would be doing the auditing to see if the mines were living up to these established standards.

That third-party is called IRMA – or IRMA — the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance.

These standards are more than 400 pages long. They include everything from emergency preparedness, workers’ rights, environmental impact to noise control.

Again, Sarah Makumbe of Anglo American:

MAKUMBE: As an international company with operations in many jurisdictions, we wanted to find a solution that would be feasible to implement across our commodity mix. But I think more than that, we also wanted the credibility of the standard to be a factor we consider. Because you don’t want to do all of this effort and it’s not acknowledged perhaps to the customers you want to sell to, for its credibility.

Now, in many cases, the word “credibility” is simply corporate jargon for “public relations”. And granted, multi-billion-dollar mining companies can be masters of PR.

But in this case, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance does carry the imprimatur of groups such as the United Steelworkers, Human Rights Watch, and the environmental advocacy group Earthworks. They all serve on IRMA’s board.

So far, IRMA has performed eight audits on Anglo American mines. Just last month, the group released results of the first audits done on South African mines – Anglo American’s Amandelbult and Mototolo copper mines.

Amandelbult received a 50 out of 100 rating on its performance against IRMA’s best practices on social and environmental standards. Mototolo received a 75.

MAKUMBE: At Amandelbult, we found that we are doing really well in some topics around emergency preparedness and response, our approach to fair labor in terms of work. And in the environmental space, air quality was one of our key areas of strength. If I turn to Mototolo, Mototolo was strong on waste and materials management. Also, like Amandelbult, fair labor in terms of work was one of our strong chapters and of occupational health and safety.

CHAKRABARTI: The mines also fell short on critical issues.

MAKUMBE: Starting with Motutolo, we are going to be looking at our efforts towards noise and vibration, greenhouse gas emissions. At Amandelbult, we’re going to be focusing on our water management, given some areas that were identified in the reports and would also like to focus on biodiversity side and community and stakeholder engagement.

CHAKRABARTI: More specifically, the audit found that the mines did not fully meet standards in several areas, including prohibiting bribery and corruption, mitigating risks to community health, and mitigating adverse environmental impacts from mining operations.

By the way, we have a link to IRMA’s audits at our website. … Now, IRMA will return to the Anglo American mines in 18 months for a follow up. And in three years the mines will be audited again to encourage continuous improvement.

And Sarah Makumbe, the sustainability certifications manager at Anglo American, stresses that these audits are not required by national or international law. So mining companies that work with IRMA are doing so voluntarily.

Alright. Aimee Boulanger joins us now. She’s Executive Director for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, or IRMA. Aimee, welcome to On Point.

AIMEE BOULANGER: Thanks so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So regarding this copper tradeoff, tell us more about IRMA and its mission and how it’s trying to really balance or reduce the sense that we have to make a tradeoff between the environment and human rights today versus the climate tomorrow.

BOULANGER: We know that we’re using these materials every day. And we know that there’s not a country in the world with laws sufficient to prevent significant harm where mining happens. So the work that IRMA does creating a voluntary initiative is never going to be as good as the laws that all companies should follow with legal consequence.

But we can, as a voluntary initiative, and as one that’s equally governed by communities affected by mining and NGOs and workers in their labor unions working with companies, we can move faster and try to create incentives in the world for mining companies to do better right now, because one thing we know is we already have the technology.

And the knowledge, the know-how and creative, dedicated people who are in the mining industry, as well as their customers, who know that they can change the way business as usual is done. But we need to create the set of incentives, so companies do that. And to differentiate between those who are doing harm and those who are changing this business.

So specifically, regarding copper, cause that’s our element of focus today. Do you have a sense of what percentage or how many copper mines around the world and their companies have agreed to work with IRMA for these voluntary audits?

BOULANGER: It’s amazing because while we started this conversation 15 years ago, it’s still early days for IRMA.

It took more than 10 years to get to a sense of confidence in a shared definition of what would be responsible mining. For many people, you look at these materials, it’s different from agriculture or forestry or seafood. These are non-renewable materials. Once we dig them out of the earth, they’re out.

Of course, it gets more renewable if we start to look at things like recycling, circular economy. How do you take these materials and make sure they don’t end up in landfills and get them back out there. But so we are only just now beginning the work of of encouraging companies to come in.

And they’re looking at people like Sarah Makumbe of Anglo American, saying, is it going to be worth it? Cause the IRMA standard is asking us to do a lot more than what others do. And is that going to change our market value? Is it what the world expects? And some hanging back until they see.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Michael Webber, let me turn back to you here. Because Aimee’s exactly right about that, I can imagine how hard it was or will continue to be to establish a universally accepted set of standards for mining, especially because the standards from place to place and from nation to nation in which these mines are located, very wildly. So from your engineering perspective here, do you think it’s even possible to come up with a sort of an acceptable threshold for all copper mines to meet?

WEBBER: I do think it’s something we should expect is to raise the standard where everyone’s using the best industry practices.

And so really hats off to that initiative to push people. It’s voluntary now, but getting some regulations in place that require people to meet the minimum best practices be great. And then evolving those practices over time. And by the way, we see the same analog in, say, methane production, natural gas production, where there are some best standards about avoiding methane emissions and not everyone complies. But we need to do the same thing in other industries.

I think this is an important push and it certainly can get better, and it should get better. And then having a market piece beyond the regulatory piece, where the markets reward you for better behavior. As you heard the other guy say around the differentiation, if you are a differentiated, better behaving mind with less pollution, you should be rewarded for that.

The markets with a higher price point where you can sell for more and make more profit. So getting the markets and policies aligned around better behaviors, I think is absolutely the way to go. We have to do that.


WEBBER: And it’s possible.

CHAKRABARTI Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you there, but Aimee, this is a really interesting point, and I would love you to explain further.

How would that market differentiation happen in terms of let’s say copper, the copper mines are going through these audits? At what point in time in the process of getting the copper from the mine into, I don’t know, I’m looking at my phone here on my desk, into a phone.

Would that differentiation take place in the market?

BOULANGER: It used to be incredibly difficult. Because, and part of the reason why most people aren’t thinking as much about mining, even if they’re thinking about where does their stuff come from, where does my food come from, my water, my electricity, and how can I be a good citizen in that awareness, is that mining has been so far away from the end consumer.

If you go buy your banana, it still looks like a banana at the store, which is what it looked like when it left the plantation. But your phone, just like you’re saying, doesn’t look like that open pit mine that Professor Webber spoke to. But, and that would be because there might be five or 10 points in the supply chain from the mine, until it gets to your phone or even more.

But what is increasingly happening now is you’ve got supply chain shortening. For a whole range of these materials, and why? In part because the demand for a set of them has gone up dramatically for energy transition. It’s also because you’ve got governments increasingly requiring that the end brands that we buy our things from use their influence and the tremendous purchasing power they have to reach up that supply chain and in-demand better practices and reduced harm in their supply chains.

You’ve got the fact that you’ve had a series of disasters at large scale mines and that communities are saying enough. And together these things are creating a confluence of demand.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: The Stillwater River flows across southern Montana. It runs along the Beartooth Mountains, flowing east. Locals and tourists alike come to the Stillwater for kayaking, rafting, and trout fishing. Also close to the river in Nye, Montana, the Stillwater mine.

The mine is owned by the Sibanye-Stillwater Company. More than 1,500 employees work to pull copper, nickel, platinum, and palladium out of the ground.

TYLER MARTIN: My name is Tyler Martin. I work for Sibanye-Stillwater at the MET complex. We just sampled a con truck coming down from Nye. We take a core sample, a representative sample of the full depth of the material in the truck. Then we empty the truck into the bunker. We use a sledgehammer to knock out the remaining material in the bed.

Those raw materials are then transported 40 miles east to Columbus, Montana for extraction. Heather McDowell, also of Sibanye-Stillwater, explains the process from there.

HEATHER McDOWELL: This is a pretty simple process. We really take the mine material that just looks like a dirt. We try it out and we put it inside our smelter, which just heats it up to temperatures at about 3,500 degrees.

And that’s really all it takes to sort out the precious metals. The process produces waste at almost every step, initial mining disposal, tailings. Slag smelting. But at the Sibanye-Stillwater Mine —

KEVIN MITCHUM: We emitted less than half a ton of sulfur dioxide last year. We believe we’re one of the best pollution-controlled smelters in the world.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s the mine’s environmental manager, Kevin Mitchum. For comparison, the company’s environmental permit allows the smelter to emit up to 84 tons of sulfur dioxide per year. It’s emitting 99.4% less than that. Sibanye-Stillwater’s emissions reduction efforts began a couple of decades ago, May 8, 2000.

PAUL HAWKES: There’s a saying that’s gone on in our group when we talk to people, is that the Good Neighbor Agreement was born out of conflict. It was born out of a lawsuit.

CHAKRABARTI: Paul Hawkes is a retired Montana rancher and one of the architects of the so-called Good Neighbor Agreement, a legally binding contract between Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company, the Northern Plains Resource Council, and local community organizations.

The agreement’s goal is to protect natural landscapes, rural quality of life, and minerals development. And Hawkes is talking about a 1992 lawsuit against the state of Montana brought by local environmental groups including the Northern Plains Resource Council. Back then, the state had issued Sibanye-Stillwater a new permit to expand operations.

The permit included a notable provision. It allowed the mine to disregard a key element of Montana’s Water Quality Act, meaning the pristine rivers nearby, like the Stillwater, wouldn’t be protected.

HAWKES:  And frankly, it all came down to water. We were, our interest was the water there and making sure it stayed clean.

It’s not enough to just have a water quality law that isn’t enforced until it’s violated. We didn’t want that. We wanted our pristine waters kept pristine.

CHAKRABARTI: But in 1995, the state legislature weakened Montana’s Water Quality Act, rendering the group’s lawsuit moot.

HAWKES: And so we had the option to sue again. Or to approach the company and see if we could sit down and come to some sort of agreement on our issues.

And we decided to see if they would be interested in sitting down and discussing a potential Good Neighbor Agreement.

CHAKRABARTI: Sibanye-Stillwater said yes. Hawkes says community and environmental groups were realistic about the challenges they faced negotiating with a well-resourced corporation. So they raised funds to hire one of the United States most celebrated negotiators.

Jim Thomas, a Washington attorney who served on the U. S. team that negotiated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with the former Soviet Union. But before the lawyers sat face to face, Paul Hawkes says his groups asked to first meet alone with Sibanye-Stillwater leadership.

HAWKES: We wanted to sit down with the company, and we wanted the people who could make decisions to be there.

Their top three people to be there. We banned having any lawyers in the room from either side. So these were just neighbors talking neighbors and we didn’t want the old good guy, bad guy, cop thing about having to go back and talk to the boss. We wanted the boss in the room. Formal negotiations went on for about a year, covering water quality, mine tailings, disposal, emissions, even traffic mitigation.

CHAKRABARTI: Sibanye-Stillwater was willing to meet most of the community’s demands with one condition. Residents and activists would give up the right to sue over any new permits. Hawkes says they agreed.

HAWKES: We did, so therefore we had to have something in our agreement that gave it some teeth, that gave us some power, should they not meet the standards.

And that took some time to come up with that. What we ended up doing was setting up a system of dispute within the agreement and an arbitration panel.

CHAKRABARTI: The final binding agreement was signed on May 8th, 2000. It continues to be refined. Today, the contract is more than 200 pages long. It requires the mine to uphold water quality standards three times stronger than the state standards, including a mandatory monitoring system to ensure standards are being met.

It also has rules on disposing tailings and traffic mitigation with hundreds of new workers on site. Heather McDowell from Sibanye-Stillwater Mining says the agreement has also been a win for the company.

McDOWELL: We haven’t had to ever invoke the dispute resolution mechanisms in the Good Neighbor Agreements.

And really, I think, from a company perspective, perhaps the more amazing statistic is that we’ve actually had no environmental litigation since the Good Neighbor Agreement was signed, which is, really just amazing.

CHAKRABARTI: McDowell adds that though the agreement comes at a hefty cost for the company, it’s led to even more valuable benefits.

McDOWELL: It allows us to solve a lot of problems before they happen, and I think it also gives us some certainty. Where we have questions about what technology might be best, or what the community, what might be the best decision for 10 years from now, we have a group who really is watchdogging us to present that issue to. And sometimes it gives you a whole different viewpoint.

I can think of a number of projects where we would have never thought of some great technology or an activity that we did or didn’t do because we had that opposing viewpoint.

HAWKES: It’s still a mine.

Again, Paul Hawkes.

HAWKES: And mine has waste issues. It has tailings and it has things that get into the water.

So I’m not going to say it’s as pristine as if a mine were not there, but I do have to say that this is probably one of the best mines that I’ve seen of this way. And that’s something that probably would not have happened without our agreement.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Paul Hawkes, a retired rancher from Sweetgrass County, Montana.

Let me turn back to Aimee Boulanger. She’s executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, or IRMA. And Aimee, the example from Montana is a very compelling one in that a community worked together with a mine to come up with a mutually agreeable solution for how to run the operations there.

But as there are many particularly environmental groups that look at these kind of community agreements and the audits that IRMA performs and just calls them pure greenwashing, that the idea of any kind of quote responsible mining is laughable on its face to begin with. How do you respond to that?

BOULANGER: I was one of those people for a long time. I was very skeptical that this work could be done. And I thought if it’s voluntary, no company is going to do it unless they think they can control it and greenwash it. However, we are all using these materials. There are thousands of communities around the world living with mining today.

They deserve an opportunity to have more information, to have agreements like the Good Neighbor Agreement. And as your whole premise of your show, we’re going to be using more of these materials for energy transition. And it’s absolutely essential we do this energy transition. And so how can we say, as Paul Hawkes did so articulately, like if we’re going to live with these things, how can we ensure that our solutions for the climate crisis don’t themselves do more harm?

And so many communities, especially in the United States, are criticized for asking for that less harm, for asking to protect the water better, to asking to protect biodiversity, to address issues like noise, but, and they get told if you complain, it’s just going to squish these impacts off to some other country in the world and the communities who are less able to complain.

If we hold a consistent global standard that expects best practice, whether you’re in South Africa or Zimbabwe, in Chile, in Russia, in Nevada, in Montana, there’s no argument that you shouldn’t complain. Because we’re going to expect there to be best practices no matter where this industry operates.

CHAKRABARTI: Michael Webber, I’m going to come back to you in just a second. But Aimee, I grant that we live in a world of absolutist thinking, right? In thinking about this copper tradeoff, it’s very natural for people to be binary in their approach to it, right? Either we just, we don’t use copper at all to preserve the lands and the people that live in, near and on the places that will be mined. Or we just have to grin and bear it and accept the fact that there will be environmental and human damage in order so that we can have this like protected climate in the future.

But you mentioned one way around maybe having less of a controversial view of this trade off. And that is achieving somehow global standards for copper mining. Is anything like that in the works or is that even just an unimaginable prospect?

BOULANGER: Oh no, it’s already here. The IRMA standard for responsible mining is a global standard that has more than 400 requirements and you can use it for copper, but you can also use it for lithium and cobalt and rare earths and gold and diamonds.

So materials associated with energy transition or other materials that we use every day.

CHAKRABARTI: But that’s volunteer, right? And I guess what I’m saying is that in order to achieve a true global standard that’s acted upon. Do you need more? Do you need international treaties or global agreements?

BOULANGER: For sure. We’d love to see the IRMA standard become a model and a template for international institutions, whether you have the UN or governments around the world to basically cut and paste and make it their own. And I think the more that the market rewards companies who do this, the more they’ll do that. Because they’ll see this is the status quo.

We’ve already changed how the world of mining is done.

CHAKRABARTI: Because it seems like, again, to be just frank on how systems work, that all applause goes to the companies, the mining companies that have agreed to work with IRMA, but there are still many others that don’t. I’m thinking back to our initial story about Cobre Panamá and first quantum mining there. And basically, getting these like very quick and favorable backroom agreements with the government of Panama.

And so it took the people of Panama weeks of protest to really have it register with their leadership that this was not going to be acceptable. So Professor Webber, I guess this gets to something fundamental about how the universe works. I understand you teach thermodynamics, right?

WEBBER: Correct.

CHAKRABARTI: So you can’t create energy, you can’t destroy it.

In other words, nothing comes for free. How do you think through the copper tradeoff tension then?

WEBBER: Yeah, the second law of thermodynamics, which is entropy or chaos increases, teaches that there’s always a downside impact from everything we do. And we call it entropy or chaos, but that’s another expression for environmental impact.

And so we have to keep that in mind. By the way, I love everything Aimee says and she’s doing because she really shows what’s possible. That we can do it better and making that better is great. But the other point she said and other people in the segment talked about, is you can only make it better. You can’t make it perfect, right?

And that’s the challenge. But for every copper mine we turn on or open, there’s another coal mine somewhere else we turn off or close. That’s the tradeoff. And if we look at fossil fuels, we extract about 15,000 million tons a year of coal, oil, and gas. And if you look at the energy transition at its peak a decade from now, we might need 400 million tons of copper and aluminum and graphite and other things like that, about 100 million of that will be copper.

So we can maybe turn off 15,000 million tons of coal, oil, and gas extraction by turning on 400 million tons of these metals extraction. So that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to take. Because that’s still two years or three orders of magnitude improvement, significant improvement of reduced mining elsewhere.

Now that isn’t very soothing to the people next door to the copper mine, right? They don’t live next door to the coal mine, but it is a huge benefit somewhere else. And that’s the hard part as a community globally to figure out. Is making sure that the people who benefit from the decisions are doing so at great expense to the people who are suffering the dis-benefit.

CHAKRABARTI: It doesn’t just have to be mined out of the ground though, right? Copper is recyclable.

WEBBER: Oh, recycling is key. First of all, using it more efficiently. Using less for our batteries and everything else. As prices go up, we have a motivation to use less copper. Finding alternatives that are either better or cheaper or less impactful to produce.

Recycling what we have, for sure, in copper is very recyclable, which is great. And someday I wonder about urban mining, like mining copper from landfills or other places. We’re not there yet, but there are a few places where that’s happening at small scale. But we have other things to do rather than just mining for the virgin copper, but we’ll need that as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Aimee, we’ve only got a minute left. Unfortunately, copper is so interesting. We could talk about it for many hours, but I’m thinking back to the United States, and our green energy goals here. The U.S. is still a net copper importer. In terms of those market forces. Do you think the U.S. government, the federal government, the Biden administration could do more to apply the use the government’s power to apply market pressures to get to balance that copper tradeoff since we’re bringing so much into the country?

BOULANGER: Oh, the government can do so much right now. They can both incentivize better practice.

They can change the 1872 mining law in the United States, which currently creates such a division between communities who are affected and mining companies who come in. If there’s a greater sense that the landscapes and indigenous culture, biodiversity, clean water will be protected here in the U.S.

When mining happens, then you’ll have more companies feeling open the way Paul Hawkes spoke of in Montana. But they can also influence what happens around the world. Is the U.S. will continue to import materials from other places. What expectations is it putting on that as its own purchasing and as it increasingly becomes an investor in those materials around the world, what expectations does it put on how practices are going to happen, whether they are in the Congo or Chile or right here in the U.S.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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