USGS rejects push to make copper a ‘critical’ mineral

By Hannah Northey | 05/23/2023 04:25 PM EDT

A bipartisan group of lawmakers had urged the agency to put copper on its list of critical minerals. But USGS Director David Applegate said that is not warranted right now.

Copper rods.

Copper rods used to machine parts are stacked on a shelf at Makerite Manufacturing in Roscoe, Ill., in 2019. Getty Images

The U.S. Geological Survey is rebuffing bipartisan calls from lawmakers to add copper to its list of critical minerals, a classification that’s catapulted in importance as the nation races to compete with China on development of renewable energy technology and boost electric vehicle adoption.

David Applegate, who directs the USGS, told Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) in an April 13 letter and Republican Rep. Bob Latta of Ohio on May 1 that vulnerabilities in the nation’s copper supplies are reduced by domestic resources, trade deals and other supplies.

“While copper is clearly an essential mineral commodity, its supply chain vulnerabilities are mitigated by domestic capacity, trade with reliable partners, and significant secondary capacity,” Applegate wrote in the letters. “As a result, the USGS does not believe that the available information on copper supply and demand justifies an out-of-cycle addition to the list at this time.”


Sinema did not immediately respond when asked for comment, but Craig Wheeler, a spokesperson for Latta, said there’s still bipartisan, bicameral support for designating copper as critical and significant data that highlights the benefits for the U.S.

“The congressman continues to believe that it’s within the secretary’s power to acknowledge this reality and designate copper as a critical mineral,” said Wheeler.

The congressional push over the status of copper highlights how much is at stake in the rush to source up and incentivize development of supply chains to feed EV production and clean energy technology. Should copper be labeled “critical,” projects aimed at mining and processing the material could potentially be prioritized by the federal government and benefit from laws like the landmark Inflation Reduction Act and its lucrative tax credits for electric vehicles.

Under federal law, a critical mineral is a non-fuel mineral or mineral material essential to the economic or national security of the U.S. but has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption.

The USGS, Applegate said, will continue to monitor copper supply and consumption data ahead of releasing the next list. The last list including 50 minerals was unveiled in February 2022, and the next is expected in 2025.

Applegate was responding to letters that a host of lawmakers sent to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland earlier this year, urging the Biden administration to reconsider including copper on the critical mineral list and warning that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and new economic data show significant supply risks.

Sinema, along with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Kelly of Arizona and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, as well as Republican Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana and Mitt Romney of Utah, concluded in their letter that designating copper as critical is a “necessity.”

The senators referenced both a report from S&P Global and an analysis from the Copper Development Association Inc., a copper industry trade group, which found global copper demand for EVs, batteries, renewables, power lines and transformers will double by 2035 and strain existing supplies.

The association in a release criticized the USGS’ decision and said data the group provided shows a higher supply risk score exists for copper that should land it on the critical mineral list.

“Despite clear data showing that copper’s supply risk score is now above the threshold for automatic inclusion on the 2022 Critical Minerals list, USGS sent well-crafted letters to a bipartisan group of congressmen and senators filled with misleading arguments that were not part of its own official 2022 methodology, or consistent with the spirit or letter of the law, to justify a decision to forego immediately adding copper to the list,” Andrew Kireta, the group’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

Kireta said the decision was made even though Haaland has the authority to add copper to the list without waiting for the next update in three years.

But Applegate in his response laid out the USGS’ methodology and cited the latest federal data showing that while net reliance on copper imports increased from 2018 to 2021, data from this year shows reliance actually decreased over the past year from 44 percent in 2021 to 41 percent in 2022.

“Imports of refined copper decreased in 2022 even as domestic copper consumption increased,” Applegate wrote.

Those points mirror an argument that Terry Rambler, chair of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, along with Earthworks, Patagonia and the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, made in a letter to Haaland earlier this year.

The tribe and environmental groups warned against what they said were attempts to influence a well-established regulatory process around how the USGS determines which minerals are critical.

Jason Burton, a spokesperson for the USGS, said the agency is monitoring critical mineral conditions as part of the normal list cycle mandated in the Energy Act of 2020, and that includes identifying a list of minerals deemed “critical” based on criteria laid out in the law, gathering public feedback, and publishing and updating the list every three years. Prior to issuing a list in 2022, Burton said the agency reviewed more than 1,000 comments from the public, stakeholders, and local and state officials.

Burton also said any revisions to the list will be the result of careful analysis of the most recent, complete sets of data, followed by peer review of the resulting conclusions, and will be issued through a public review and comment process in the Federal Register.