Lending Association

New lease of life for Arizona Copper Mine project

Quietly, an American appeals court has given a new lease of life to the chances of a new copper mine in Arizona, promoted by Rio Tinto and BHP for years. However, there’s still a long way to go, and there is no certainty the mine will ever be built despite this favorable ruling.

The court narrowly ruled on Friday that the US government may give away thousands of acres in Arizona to Rio Tinto for the Resolution mine, upholding a previous ruling and rejecting a request from Native Americans who said the land has religious and cultural import.

The move is the latest blow to Native Americans opposing the project, claiming it would destroy a site of religious and cultural importance but supply more than a quarter of US copper demand for the renewable energy transition.

The project, 55% owned by Rio and planned to be operated by them, with BHP owning the other 45%, received a 6-5 ruling from the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, essentially deferring to a 2014 decision made by Congress and then-President Barack Obama.

Lawyers for the Native Americans said the ruling would be appealed to the US Supreme Court, marking their third loss in US courts. The dispute centers on federally-owned land in eastern Arizona known as Oak Flat, which some Native American Apache consider home to deities and sits atop a reserve of over 1.787 billion tonnes of ore at an average grade of 1.5% copper, providing the mine a potential life of at least 60 years.

The 2014 law required an environmental report to be published for the land swap to occur, which former President Donald Trump did shortly before leaving office. President Joe Biden then unpublished the report in March 2021 to review the Apache’s concerns, though he was not able to permanently block the mine.

The decision is highlighted as highly political, with the majority of judges appointed by Republican presidents and the dissenting judges mostly appointed by Democratic presidents.