COP­PER CRUNCH

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Focus On / Mba -

Over time, as the de­posit is mined, the land above it will start to sink. No one’s sure how much. Mod­els sug­gest that for ev­ery 100 feet of ore that’s mined, the sur­face could sub­side 30 feet. Which would mean that by the time the mine is de­pleted, af­ter about 50 years of pro­duc­tion, there could be a crater in the ground 2 miles across, and 1,000 feet deep, right on the edge of one of the coun­try’s largest na­tional forests.

The de­posit sits di­rectly be­neath about 2,400 acres of what had been na­tional for­est land. Rio Tinto spent a decade try­ing to gain ac­cess to the land. It couldn’t just buy it from the govern­ment; it had to swap for it. At the end of 2014, a group of law­mak­ers tucked a rider into a mil­i­tary spend­ing bill that trans­ferred the 2,400 acres above the cop­per de­posit to the min­ing pro­ject. In re­turn, the U. S. For­est Ser­vice got 5,300 acres of con­ser­va­tion land that Rio Tinto spent more than $18 mil­lion buy­ing up. The land was se­lected by the For­est Ser­vice and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups to be com­pa­ra­ble to the par­cel traded to the mine. In Jan­uary, in a bid to stop the mine from go­ing for­ward, the Na­tional Park Ser­vice ap­plied to add the land given to the mine to the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places. On March 2, House Repub­li­cans be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Park Ser­vice’s move, re­quest­ing doc­u­ments from the de­part­ments of In­te­rior and Agri­cul­ture. De­spite the wran­gling, this month the fed­eral govern­ment will be­gin the for­mal reg­u­la­tory re­view of the Res­o­lu­tion mine, which could take two to three years.

So far, all the work on the mine has been ex­ploratory. Rio Tinto doesn’t ex­pect to get the per­mits to be­gin re­mov­ing cop­per un­til about 2020. By the time the first ounce of cop­per is pro­duced, the com­pany and part­ner BHP will have spent more than $7 bil­lion on the Res­o­lu­tion pro­ject— an amaz­ing sum given the sorry state of the min­ing in­dus­try. Af­ter a decade of high prices led to big in­vest­ments in mines all over the world, there’s now a glut of metal on the mar­ket. Prices have crashed: Cop­per is 50 per­cent cheaper than it was in 2011, and min­ing com­pa­nies have lost bil­lions of dol­lars in value. Mines are shut­ting down. Lay­offs are rip­pling through the in­dus­try, from the U. S. to Aus­tralia, as the gi­ant com­pa­nies try to slim down in the face of the steep­est de­cline in me­tals prices in a gen­er­a­tion.

Rio Tinto, based in Lon­don, has man­aged the down­turn rea­son­ably well, thanks largely to ag­gres­sive cost- cut­ting un­der Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Sam Walsh. Since Jan­uary 2013, he’s sold off $4.7 bil­lion in as­sets, in­clud­ing some of its costli­est mines, and re­duced cap­i­tal spend­ing 50 per­cent. In De­cem­ber he an­nounced pay freezes for the en­tire com­pany in 2016.

The U.S. has some of the largest-known re­sources of min­eral de­posits in the world, yet they’ve be­come harder and harder to ex­tract. The per­mit­ting process alone can take a decade. The min­ing in­dus­try likes to point out that, since the 1990s, the U.S. has fallen from 20 per­cent of the world’s mi­ne­ex­plo­ration spend­ing to 8 per­cent. That’s left the U.S. with an ar­ray of older mines that tend to have higher costs, since the deeper you have to dig, the more ex­pen­sive it be­comes. So mines go in waves, open­ing and clos­ing, some­times for years at a time, pulled by the volatil­ity of com­mod­ity mar­kets. Over the past three decades, there have been three big down­turns—the early ’80s, the mid-’90s, and this one.

Sep­pala has rid­den each wave, and this is the se­cond time he’s worked at the Res­o­lu­tion site. He got his first job at the Magma Su­pe­rior mine back in 1977, just as No. 9 was be­ing com­pleted. He was fresh off a full ride at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona min­ing pro­gram. “They were giv­ing out schol­ar­ships to any­one will­ing to go into min­ing,” he says. Af­ter cop­per prices col­lapsed, Magma Su­pe­rior shut down in 1982. Sep­pala even­tu­ally moved his fam­ily to In­done­sia to work in a Freeport Mcmoran mine. “That was a rough camp back then. That was out in the jun­gle.” His wife came back to Ari­zona af­ter a year. “She said I could do what I wanted.”

He came home and even­tu­ally landed at a mine in San Manuel, about 40 miles north of Tuc­son. That mine used an un­der­ground block- cav­ing tech­nique, blast­ing and min­ing the ore in big pan­els at dif­fer­ent an­gles, as Res­o­lu­tion will do. Sep­pala prefers this to open pits. “The chal­lenges of the en­gi­neer­ing are what make it fun,” he says. “Open pits are just big­ger and faster. I call it large-scale gar­den­ing.”

Bravence worked as a drift miner at Magma Su­pe­rior from 1991 to 1995. A drift is when you dig side­ways, chas­ing the fi­nal rem­nants of a vein of cop­per that runs into the moun­tain. This is how peo­ple get crushed. Crit­i­cal to a lat­eral hole are the tim­ber braces that hold it up. Bravence was a tim­ber re­pair­man for sev­eral years. He’s spent half his life crawl­ing around un­der­ground. “I’m pay­ing for it now with the ab­sence of a lot of re­ally good shoul­der mus­cles,” he says. “It’s a young man’s game.”

Over his ca­reer, Bravence has had eight col­leagues get killed un­der­ground. Sep­pala has worked with more than 20 who died on the job. They call that hit­ting the jack­pot. “Lots of jack­pots,” Bravence says. “That’s just when bad things hap­pen. Top to bot­tom I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff. It’s al­ways heavy and dark and wet un­der­ground, so noth­ing’s easy.”

Sink­ing a mine shaft fol­lows a strict se­quence of events: drill, blast, muck, re­peat. The ma­chine that does it is a 50-ton, 60-foot-tall tubu­lar cage called the Gal­loway. Nested in­side

Sup­ply is fore­cast to ex­ceed de­mand over the rest of the decade, as China slows in­fra­struc­ture and con­struc­tion spend­ing, and other de­vel­op­ing economies fol­low suit.

$10k

Av­er­age cop­per price per ton

World cop­per pro­duc­tion, tons

Fore­cast

30m

15m

2020 world cop­per de­mand, as­sum­ing … 3% growth 2% 1%

If most of the an­nounced projects are com­pleted, cop­per con­sump­tion wouldn’t match pro­duc­tion

it are a pair of drills that bore a se­ries of holes into the rock, each one 10 feet deep and 2 inches around. The holes are then packed with ex­plo­sives, and the Gal­loway is raised a few hun­dred feet, to a safe dis­tance. When the crew trig­gers the det­o­na­tion, they feel the con­cus­sion re­ver­ber­at­ing up the shaft to­ward them be­fore they hear it. The smoke clears af­ter about 45 min­utes. Then the Gal­loway is low­ered back down, and a pair of me­chan­i­cal arms with gi­ant claws at­tached to the bot­tom “muck” up the rub­ble from the blast. A layer of sprayed-on con­crete is ap­plied around the edges of the shaft. More holes are drilled, dy­na­mite is laid, and the Gal­loway rises again.

At No. 10 it took about three years to dig down to the first sub­sta­tion, 4,600 feet be­neath the sur­face, at an av­er­age pace of about 10 feet a day of fin­ished con­crete tube. “We were high- balling,” Bravence says. “Blast­ing three to four times a week and pour­ing con­crete three times a week.” Then came the wa­ter. By Jan­uary 2013, work had slowed al­most to a stand­still.

The crew spent six months try­ing to ward it off. They stuck grout and even burlap into crevices. Noth­ing worked. They even­tu­ally in­stalled the pumps. “We never did con­tain the wa­ter. So we just pushed it out of our way and mined through it,” Bravence says. He’s con­fi­dent No. 10 is the most dif­fi­cult mine shaft ever dug in Amer­ica. “We were do­ing things that hadn’t been done at that depth. The heat, the wa­ter, that’s what made this shaft dif­fer­ent from any other,” he says. It’s also the dirt­i­est one he ever worked in. Bravence went home cov­ered in red ev­ery night from all the hematite in the rock. “You’d take your shower, and you’d do the best you could get­ting clean, but af­ter a cou­ple days the wife would be scream­ing at you, be­cause your sheets would be red. So we never had white sheets. We just got red ones. That’s just a miner men­tal­ity.”

Back at the sur­face, Sep­pala ex­hales as we climb out of the cage. “Even af­ter all th­ese years work­ing un­der­ground, no mat­ter how lit­tle time I spend down there, it al­ways feels good when you hit the col­lar,” he says. “It’s hard to ex­plain, just a feel­ing I get.”

“It’s when the beer tastes the best,” Bravence says.

The edge of the San Car­los Apache In­dian Reser­va­tion is about 20 miles east of No. 10, and the tribe is an adamant op­po­nent of the mine. The Apaches claim the land be­neath the Tonto Na­tional For­est is sa­cred to them and that the mine will tap and pos­si­bly con­tam­i­nate their reser­va­tion’s wa­ter sup­plies. An­drew Taplin, Res­o­lu­tion Cop­per’s pro­ject di­rec­tor, has tried to as­sure the tribe that this won’t hap­pen. “It’s ab­so­lutely phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble for us to im­pact their aquifers or sur­face wa­ter,” he says. “We are 20 miles apart and on dif­fer­ent aquifers that are part of dif­fer­ent basins.”

Res­o­lu­tion Cop­per em­ploy­ees have at­tempted to en­gage with the tribe and hold in­for­ma­tion ses­sions on the reser­va­tion, but with­out much luck. “For 10 years we have not had ac­cess to the reser­va­tion,” says Taplin. “We have not been per­mit­ted onto the reser­va­tion to pro­vide our side of the story.” Last year, how­ever, a hand­ful of Res­o­lu­tion com­mu­nity-re­la­tions em­ploy­ees, af­ter months of ne­go­ti­a­tions, were al­lowed to hold an in­for­ma­tion ses­sion at a casino on the reser­va­tion. “It took us years to get that in­vi­ta­tion,” says Vic­to­ria Peacey, who han­dles the per­mit­ting process and ex­ter­nal affairs for Res­o­lu­tion Cop­per. “The casino went out on a limb by hav­ing us.” Along with dis­cussing wa­ter is­sues, Peacey tried to fo­cus on the eco­nomic ben­e­fits of the mine dur­ing her pre­sen­ta­tion at the reser­va­tion, which is home to 15,000 peo­ple and has an un­em­ploy­ment rate close to 70 per­cent.

In early De­cem­ber, Jean-sébastien Jac­ques, chief ex­ec­u­tive of cop­per at Rio Tinto, vis­its the mine. His trip had been planned for months, but at the last minute, an Apache tribal leader agrees to visit the mine with Jac­ques. Be­fore go­ing un­der­ground, Jac­ques and Taplin take him aside and draw a sketch on a white board, demon­strat­ing the un­der­ground ge­ol­ogy in an at­tempt to con­vince him that the mine won’t in­ter­fere with the San Car­los wa­ter sup­ply. After­ward, in a car ride to a nearby drill site, Jac­ques de­scribes the meet­ing. “In the end, the peo­ple that will grant us our li­cense to op­er­ate are the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, and we have to be their full part­ner.”

The Rio Tinto ex­ec­u­tive has bro­kered deals like this be­fore. In Oc­to­ber 2014 he in­vited Mon­go­lia’s prime min­ster- elect, Chimediin Saikhan­bi­leg, to din­ner at his Hol­land Park house in Lon­don. Ne­go­ti­a­tions had been stalled over Rio Tinto’s at­tempts to ex­pand a large gold and cop­per mine in the coun­try. Fi­nally, at din­ner, Jac­ques’s 9-year-old daugh­ter charmed the Mon­go­lian leader by ask­ing him to sign her ge­og­ra­phy home­work. “My cheeky lit­tle mon­key,” Jac­ques says with a smile, still amused.

Over the past few years, Res­o­lu­tion has drilled more than 100 holes to test the size and com­po­si­tion of the Ari­zona cop­per de­posit. Each test hole, about 6 inches in di­am­e­ter and thou­sands of feet deep, costs more than $1 mil­lion. At a drill site down the hill from the mine en­trance and on top of the ore body, Jac­ques is given a progress re­port. Walk­ing over, he re­flects on the com­pli­ca­tions of min­ing: “It’s ac­tu­ally quite sim­ple, re­ally. It’s a cap­i­tal busi­ness. So we sink $5 bil­lion into the ground, and the sooner you get the cash out, the bet­ter it is.”

By the drill rig, a ge­ol­o­gist pro­duces some re­cent core sam­ples that had been pulled from the hole. Point­ing to some metal­lic-look­ing spots on the tubu­lar rock, the ge­ol­o­gist ex­plains that re­cent sam­ples had shown cop­per con­cen­tra­tions as high as 3.5 per­cent. Jac­ques smiles and puts his fin­ger to his ear. “I can hear the money.” <BW>

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