The price of copper surged to a record high this week, breaking the $11,000-per-ton threshold for the first time. My guess is that you care as much about the price of copper as you do about all the tea in China, but you should be concerned. Copper is a critical metal without which America would come to a virtual halt. One ton of copper brings functionality to 40 vehicles, powers 100,000 mobile phones, enables operations in 400 computers, and distributes electricity to 30 homes.

It is estimated the average American needs 12 pounds of copper every year to maintain their standard of living. Copper is fundamental to electricity generation, distribution and storage.

Although the price of copper is often volatile because traders can manipulate the market, the price of the metal has been rising for quite some time, making it an easy and valuable commodity worth stealing. Back in 2008, the FBI issued this alert about rising copper thefts and the harm it was causing to U.S. infrastructure:

The demand for copper from developing nations such as China and India is creating a robust international copper trade. Copper thieves are exploiting this demand and the resulting price surge by stealing and selling the metal for high profits to recyclers across the United States. As the global supply of copper continues to tighten, the market for illicit copper will likely increase. 

Copper thieves are threatening US critical infrastructure by targeting electrical substations, cellular towers, telephone land lines, railroads, water wells, construction sites, and vacant homes for lucrative profits. Copper thefts from these targets have increased since 2006; and they are currently disrupting the flow of electricity, telecommunications, transportation, water supply, heating, and security and emergency services, and present a risk to both public safety and national security.

The author of the FBI’s alert was clearly a glass-is-half-full kind of person. Copper theft didn’t only increase, it soared. Here in crime ridden Los Angeles, officials in February moved to create a task force focused on combating rampant copper theft that’s been responsible for increasing blackouts in the city, as well as other disruptions costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Council member Kevin de León told reporters that Los Angeles had over 500-600 cases of copper wire theft annually from 2017 to 2022. By the end of 2023, the number increased to over 6,000 cases.

“Our neighborhoods, our parks are bearing the brunt of this public menace,” de León said. 

Demand for copper is expected to soar over the next few decades if aggressive government electric vehicles mandates are achieved. In the U.S., the Biden Administration has demanded that 100% of cars and trucks sold in America be electric by 2035. Most Americans appreciate the transition is going badly, as “range anxiety” remains a major obstacle because the Biden Administration and U.S. automakers, save for Tesla, lacked the wisdom to create a reliable and readily available national charging network as simple and fast as filling an internal combustion vehicle with gas.

Considerable copper will be required to upgrade America’s aging electrical infrastructure, which the Biden Administration this week very belatedly took steps to address.  The U.S. has a major clean energy problem: There is more electricity from solar power waiting to get on the grid than the entire amount of energy currently on the grid. 

Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2024

The Biden Administration has so botched America’s EV transition that many Americans reject battery powered vehicles for political or ideological reasons because they resent EVs being forced down their throats. Obama knew what he was talking about when he said, “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to f— things up.”

The Biden Administration’s EV mandates were predicated on the assumption that the requisite metals to produce EVs would be readily available at a reasonable cost. Copper is one of the requisite metals, which is why the metal’s price has been on the rise. EVs require considerably more copper than a gas engine to produce.

“A normal Honda Accord needs about 40 pounds of copper. The same battery electric Honda Accord needs almost 200 pounds of copper,” Adam Simon, professor of earth and environmental sciences at University of Michigan, told the trade publication Engineering and Technology.

Simon, and and Lawrence Cathles, professor emeritus of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell, co-authored a study for the International Energy Forum (IEF) to determine the availability of copper to meet the world’s projected EV demands. The findings are dire.

“The amount of copper (needed to meet projected EV demand) is essentially impossible for mining companies to produce,” Simon told E&T.

Adam Simon/UofM

Simon and Cathles projected that renewable energy’s copper needs would outstrip what copper mines can produce at the current rate. Just to meet business-as-usual trends, Simon and Cathles projected that 115% more copper must be mined in the next 30 years than has been historically mined to date.

To electrify the world’s global fleet of vehicles would require bringing into production 55% more new mines, as many as six new large copper mines annually over the next several decades. About 40% of the production from new mines would be required for EV-related grid upgrades.

“We know, for example, that a Toyota Prius actually has a slightly better impact on climate than a Tesla,” Simon told E&T. “Instead of producing 20 million EVs in the U.S. and, globally, 100 million battery EVs each year, would it be more feasible to focus on building 20 million hybrid vehicles?”

For EV advocates, Simon’s comment in blasphemy, and no doubt will invite accusations that he and Cathles are climate change deniers, propogandists for the oil industry, or gullible Toyota believers, the default attacks whenever someone dares to question EVs as the best solution for combating climate change. Toyota pioneered hybrids decades ago and is making a killing selling them because the company correctly predicted that Americans wouldn’t readily embrace EVs.

Here’s how the IEF bills itself:

The International Energy Forum (IEF) is the world’s largest international organization of energy ministers from 73 countries and includes both producing and consuming nations. The IEF has a broad mandate to examine all energy issues, including oil and gas, clean and renewable energy, sustainability, energy transitions and new technologies, data transparency, and energy access. Through the Forum and its associated events, officials, industry executives, and other experts engage in a dialogue of increasing importance to global energy security and sustainability.

If perhaps Simon, Cathles, or the IEF are so seriously conflicted that their published researched shouldn’t be taken seriously, I haven’t identified reasons for their possible lack of credibility.

China, whose communist government’s successful EV transition I’ve grudgingly come to admire and fear, clearly appreciates the need to better ensure a sufficient supply of copper to meet its EV needs. Earlier this year, China approved a $2.4 billion plan to expand the Julong copper mine in the Qinhai-Tibet Plateau. The project will create the world’s largest copper mine, which will commence operations by year-end 2025 and firmly establish China as the world’s leader in copper refining.

China is also expected to increase its copper smelting capacity by 45 percent by 2027, accounting for 61 percent of expected new plants worldwide.

In 2022, it is estimated that China accounted for 58 percent of the world’s copper imports, so the country already is well on its way to cornering the world’s copper supply. According to the World Economic Forum, North, South, and Central America dominate copper production, as these regions collectively host 15 of the 20 largest copper mines. Chile is the top copper producer in the world, with 27% of global copper production, followed by Peru with 10%.

World Economic Forum Graphic

Copper mining is among the most environmentally hazardous processes, requiring the removal of significant amounts of forest and potentially damaging thousands of wildlife species to create massive open-pit mines. These mines eliminate topsoil and can cause more rapid soil erosion. Panama recently closed an open pit copper mine in a biodiverse jungle area on the country’s Atlantic coast that environmentalists insisted threatened the region’s water supplies. The mine produced one percent of the world’s global copper output.

Supposed green energy “progressives” like Michigan governor and presidential aspirant Gretchen Whitmer care not one iota about the environmental destruction required to support EVs. Whitmer spearheaded $1.7 billion in taxpayer grants and subsidies to destroy fertile farmland and century old trees so Ford could build a battery plant in a rural part of her state in partnership with a China-based battery company. Underscoring Ford’s environmental disregard, the company scaled back its project after the farmland and trees were destroyed.

FBI News Blog

China’s Xi Jinping has publicly stated that he wants his country to rule the world by 2049, and dominating EV manufacturing and the supply chains is only one of the country’s already strategic advantages. FBI Director Christopher Wray has warned that America’s entire infrastructure is at risk of being taken down by China.

“The fact is, (China’s) targeting of our critical infrastructure is both broad and unrelenting,” Wray told a recent gathering of national security and intelligence experts. Wray warned that the immense size and expanding China’s hacking program isn’t just aimed at stealing American intellectual property. “It’s using that mass, those numbers, to give itself the ability to physically wreak havoc on our critical infrastructure at a time of its choosing,” he said. 

America’s grid and EV transformation is overseen by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Anyone who remotely believes that Granholm and Buttigieg can protect America from the best minds in China are examples of why ignorance is bliss.

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