How the rise of copper reveals clean energy’s dark side

by Gitanjali Poonia, New Mexico in Depth | November 10, 2021
9 min read
Tyrone Mine near Silver City, in continuous operation since 1967, sits on the state's second-largest copper deposit. New Mexico ranks third nationally in copper production. Source: Freeport-McMoRan Corporation

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Nov. 9, 2021, by New Mexico In Depth, in collaboration with Guardian US. It is reprinted in the Sun with permission.

Corky Stewart, a retired geologist, and his wife live in a rural subdivision in New Mexico’s Grant County, about a mile north of the sprawling Tyrone copper mine.  

“We’ve been here three years and we’ve heard four blasts,” Stewart said of the mine, one of four homeowners on an expanse of land partitioned into dozens of four-acre lots. From his perspective, the blasts don’t seem unreasonable, given that a mining company owns the property and has the right to do what it wants. 

But he didn’t know when he bought the property that the company would propose a new pit called the “Emma B” just a half-mile from the wells he and his wife depend on for drinking water. “If they were to somehow tap into our aquifer and drain our water supply, then our houses become valueless,” he said. 

“We’re not making any effort to prevent the pit from being built,” he said. “All we’re really asking is for them to give us some commitment that they will fix whatever they do to our water supply.” But the mine refuses to give them this assurance, he said.  Freeport-McMoRan did not respond to multiple requests for comment by New Mexico In Depth and The Guardian.

The effort by Freeport-McMoRan, the company that owns the Tyrone mine, to expand comes as the U,S, looks to invest in energy sources that are cleaner than fossil fuels, and the global demand for copper rises. Copper conducts electricity, bends easily, and is recyclable–which makes it a critical material to have in most forms of renewable energy, from wind and solar to electric vehicles.

But when “clean energy” relies on the extraction of metals like copper, it can also pollute the surrounding environment.

While Freeport-McMoRan touts sustainability practices and other measures taken to reduce the company’s own greenhouse gas emissions, there’s little doubt that copper mining poses significant risks to communities on the ground, threatening everything from water access to air quality to indigenous cultural sites.

Companies dig massive holes into the ground, going deeper than the water table. Heavy machinery kicks up dust, making air pollution. Chemicals are used to leach the mineral out of ore, and exposed water is forever contaminated. Some operations, like Freeport’s Tyrone mine, will have to pump water in perpetuity, even after there is no longer copper to be found, so that contaminated water from the mine site doesn’t flow back into the wider water table.

Chris Berry, an independent analyst focused on energy metals, said the push for clean energy is a big reason. The demand for copper is estimated to grow by 350 percent by 2050 if the world moves towards clean energy. Its price nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020 in the US. 

That’s partly because copper’s role in the transition to clean energy cannot be understated. “We’re really going to have to re-engineer the electricity grid to make it cleaner and greener and more efficient. And that’s going to take a lot more copper, and copper mining.”

This reality puts environmentalists like Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Resources Information Project, a local environmental advocacy organization in Grant County, in a tricky spot. 

Allyson Siwik, ED of Gila Resources Information Project
Concerned that frontline communities will bear the hidden health and safety costs of the expansion of extractive industries, Grant County environmentalist Allyson Siwik advocates for tighter federal regulations to ensure that mines follow the best management practices. Source: Gila Resources Information Project

“We are trying to transition to a clean energy economy, right?” said Siwik. “So we obviously are very supportive of that.” “However,” she adds, “the increase in global demand for these metals is very disconcerting to me. You know, it’s frontline communities like us here in Grant County that bear the cost of the increased exploration, expansion of mining.”

Tucked away in rural areas of Grant County in southwestern New Mexico, the vast Chino and Tyrone copper mines owned by Freeport-McMoRan don’t garner much attention in the state’s metropolitan center. But the state ranks third in copper production nationally, and the mines employ more than 1,300 people. As demand for copper increases, local employment could grow.

Freeport-McMoRan is betting on it. 

The company’s 2020 annual report estimates that the demand for copper is expected to double in the next five years as a result of growth in electric vehicles and renewable technology.

“There is an increased interest to mine copper at both existing and proposed mines to support clean energy,” Holland Shepherd, manager of the Mining Act Reclamation Program at New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department, said in an email.

In Sierra County, another mining company is proposing to reboot the Copper Flat mine, which briefly operated in the early 1980s before prices fell and it shut down. THEMAC Resources is applying for a 12-year mining permit, which also requires acquisition of enough water rights to satisfy state regulators.

Nearby, residents of the village of Hillsboro, are concerned. 

“We depend on our wells here in town for all our water,” said Gary Gritzbaugh, who has lived in Hillsboro for 25 years and is the president of the Hillsboro Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association. The small water association serves 80 to 90 customers and has operated for over half a century. “It is a good system,” he said, expressing deep concern that the mine will drain or contaminate their wells. 

Gritzbaugh said that, while engineers from the mining company reassured the town that contaminated water from the mine won’t reach the water Hillsboro depends on, he isn’t certain. “Groundwater is just an underground river, it goes wherever it wants to go. People say, well, it’s not going to drain this way, it’s going to drain towards Rio Grande. Well, maybe, maybe not.”

For environmentalists set on reducing energy-related carbon, there aren’t easy solutions to the threat that mining for copper and other essential minerals poses for communities like Hillsboro or rural residents like Stewart. 

Noah Long, the western region director of the Climate and Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that without an energy transition, there will be devastating consequences, some of which are already surfacing. “We can’t afford to wait,” he said. But he noted the need for adequate regulation of mines, as well as reusing and then recycling electric vehicle batteries. 

Establishing a market to recycle electric vehicle batteries–which can last a dozen or more years–could help reduce demand for copper and rein in mining operations in areas like New Mexico, where copper ore is abundant. 

“We need to shift policy that creates clear incentives for recycling,” said Aimee Boulanger, the executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA). She noted that extracting metals is currently more profitable than recycling them.  

In 2020, an estimated 35 percent of copper was recycled in the U.S., and about a third of total global demand is met with recycled copper. But electric vehicle battery recycling is minimal. Electric vehicle batteries contain copper, nickel, cobalt and lithium; of these, cobalt and nickel are usually recoverable for new batteries, but lithium and copper are captured for use in other industries or products, or lost in the process. 

When lead-acid batteries came into the picture in 1859, they were rarely recycled–but now they are easily broken down for reuse. This could be the blueprint for electric vehicle batteries. Countries like China already issued provisional regulations that encourage manufacturers to set up networks for collecting and recycling used batteries. The EU already has a drafted act that tackles sustainable batteries. 

If electric vehicles are the alternative to oil-guzzling cars, then their impact–from the mining and extraction of raw materials needed to build them to managing the waste from that process–should be addressed, said Boulanger. “And we need to make sure that we’re working to reduce that impact.”

Encouraging automakers and electronics companies to work with suppliers who source minerals responsibly is also important, say environmentalists.

At the end of the day, such mines won’t ever be 100 percent safe, said Siwik, who recently joined indigenous tribes and environmental groups calling on the federal government to revise hardrock mining regulations. 

“We need to demand the maximum amount of environmental protection, that mines are following best management practices and being as protective as possible.” That means lining stockpiles, preventing toxic pollutants from entering groundwater, mitigating air quality impacts, and that mines reclaim the land as soon as a particular mining area is used up. 

Encouraging automakers and electronics companies to work with suppliers who source minerals responsibly is also important.

Siwik suggests an accreditation standard awarded by the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance for scoring how well a company mines responsibly. 

IRMA was developed independently of other standards adopted by mining industry associations. It uses public audits based on social and environmental responsibility, business integrity, and what it calls “planning for positive legacies” to measure performance. The results, reviewed by an independent auditor, are released with details about the mining operation, visited facilities and interviews that the auditors conducted with company representatives from across different departments.

The public audit covers “everything from protecting indigenous people’s rights, to biodiversity and water, to worker health and safety,” said Boulanger. IRMA has already conducted public audits of a platinum mine in Zimbabwe and a lead-zinc mine in Mexico.

Tiffany’s and BMW and Ford Motors have already committed to sourcing responsibly, so if a mine wants to be a part of these supply chains, they would have to adhere to high standards, said Boulanger.  

But environmentalists worry that copper mining giants in New Mexico will be reluctant to follow such standards. 

Last year, Freeport-McMoRan announced its commitment to another standard, the Copper Mark Responsible Production Framework. Designed specifically for copper operations, it was developed by the International Copper Association, an influential trade group. This standard does not give governance and voting power to affected communities, organized labor, non-governmental environment or human rights organizations, like IRMA’s multi-stakeholder system does. But Copper Mark does issue reports based on sustainability standards. And, according to Shepherd, at the state energy, minerals and natural resources department, the Copper Mark and another standard by the industry-led Council on Mining and Metals are both good. 

But communities affected by mine operations are often skeptical of data and reports provided by industry. 

When the company assures him that the water polluted by the proposed Emma B mine won’t reach his water wells, Stewart is unconvinced. “It’s the mine providing the data, right?” he said. “They’re the ones paying an expert and you know, if you want an expert to say something, [you can] just pay him money.”  

Once the company has the permit, the only recourse residents like Stewart would have in the event of water contamination would be suing in court, which takes significant financial resources, he said. 

“I can’t afford to hire my own hydrology firm and lawyers and all this,” says Stewart.


Gitanjali Poonia is a contributing reporter for New Mexico in Depth. An early career journalist, she writes about politics, culture and climate change. Driven by her upbringing in New Delhi, India, she takes pride in reporting on underserved and under-covered communities. She holds a bachelor’s degree in electronic media from San Francisco State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia Journalism School.  


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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

1 thought on “How the rise of copper reveals clean energy’s dark side”

  1. Dennis Dunnum - TorC

    Yikes, this is supremely depressing! Capitalism is blind and deaf when it come to anything besides profits. Unfortunately, they are not “dumb.” Yes, we absolutely need to up our game when it comes to recycling. We’re already drowning in our garbage but even efficient recycling models will not produce enough of the metals needed for a future of renewable energy. That said, we cannot allow significant or even seemingly insignificant members of our community of humans to be victimized by the march to clean energy.

    Corporations that mine the minerals needed will need to be held to account for their poisoning or destroying others’ life-support systems—water, air, agriculture—for their profit margins. If they are going to harm people’s survival mechanisms, they need to be held accountable, which means tapping into their bottom line. No one should make profit off someone else’s loss of “life, liberty or pursuit of happiness,” whether that is their access to clean water, air or property, as well as loss of agency due to discrimination as a result of all the usual: race, creed, gender, etc., OR the inability to sue these corporations because of lack of resources that the corporations have in abundance: i.e., cash to buy justice!

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