As Jeffrey takes me through Superior, she suggests I talk to a friend of hers. Alan Seymour's tiny house is just down the street from the old Magma hospital. A compact 40-something-year-old, Seymour embodies the global nature of today's mining industry. He was born in South Africa, spent a good portion of his life in Australia, lived in Southern California and then moved to Superior, where he now works as a geologist for Australia- and England-based Resolution Copper.
Nearly every mine involved in the new boom is part of this global nexus. Most of the big operators today are based in Canada, Australia, England or even Mexico. (Just this month, in fact, China bought a big stake in Rio Tinto, Resolution's parent company.) All of them, even Phoenix-based conglomerate Freeport-McMoRan, owe much of their current success to China rather than the domestic market. Between 1990 and 2005, Chinese demand for metals, fueled by the country's breakneck growth, increased by about 10 percent a year. Now, China is the world's largest consumer of copper, helping raise global copper consumption by more than 60 percent since 1990. And as the Chinese become wealthier and buy more gadgets, the country's copper craving could double or even quadruple over the next 25 years, according to the World Bank Group's metal market outlook.
Dirt-caked shovels lean up against Alan Seymour's kitchen counter, and a television monopolizes most of his living room. On the bookshelf, Camus' Strangerstands cheek-by-jowl with geology textbooks. Seymour is hardly a stereotypical miner; he even says he cares "more about the environment than the average person."
"Life revolves around making the best choices," he says. That includes mining copper here at home, specifically under Oak Flat, even if it has some environmental costs. This notion of mineral independence is common among Resolution supporters and sounds a lot like the energy independence mantra that has led to the drilling of vast swaths of the West.
Resolution says it will mine copper in Superior for the next 40 years. The huge ore body under Oak Flat will supply 20 to 25 percent of all copper produced in the U.S. during that time, they say. And the global demand will continue to grow.
Still, the bottom line rules, and there's no guarantee that copper prices will stay high enough to make mining profitable. Roderick Eggert, professor of economics and business at Colorado School of Mines, expected copper prices to fall by now, as did the World Bank Group. He remains certain it will happen sometime. "My expectation is that over the longer term, copper prices will fall back toward the $1.50 per pound range," he says. "The question I can't answer is when."
When prices increase, says Eggert, mining companies respond by increasing production, which results in lower prices. While global production has increased in recent years, it has yet to catch up with demand. But it easily could. The U.S. economic slump could rub off on other countries, which would lower consumption even as mine production capacity ramps up in the West. And the Senate this year is wrangling over a mining reform bill that would impose royalties on hardrock mining revenues, which would eat into profits.
Meanwhile, there are copper
deposits in undeveloped countries that are just waiting to be
tapped. Foremost may be the Oyu Tolgoi, in Mongolia, which contains
some 70 billion tons of copper. Once developed, it will create a
significant new supply for China and the rest of Asia. One of the
two companies hoping to mine Oyu Tolgoi is Rio Tinto, owner of
Resolution Copper Company in Superior.
Back at My Friends Tavern, as the late-afternoon sun casts long, cool shadows, a group of motorcyclists roars up and parks in front of the bar. Their shiny new Harley Davidsons smack more of the Phoenix-professional variety of biker than the Hells Angels. "Ten years ago," says Roy Chavez, motioning toward the bikers with a smile, "we would have beaten those guys up." Then he points at the green bottle I'm sipping from and adds, "Heck, you couldn't have ordered a Dos Equis, either. You drank Coors with a shot of Jim Beam. And that's it."
Maybe that is it. Maybe this isn't about the global economy or copper prices or economics at all. Maybe it's about an urban escapee being able to get a Dos Equis at the local bar without getting his ass kicked by surly miners, or sip a cappuccino while listening to jazz rather than the roar of mining trucks. Maybe it's about how a rough and scrappy blue-collar culture tends to scare away the more genteel folks who fuel an amenity economy. Second-home owners aren't inclined to fix up quaint Victorian cottages if the neighbors use their lawn as a salvage yard, and eco-tourists aren't so hip on staying in B&Bs that overlook seedy hotels or man camps crammed with roughnecks.
Superiorites are cognizant of all this. For them, as for so many other small towns still climbing out of the wreckage of industrial abandonment, the amenity economy is the future, whether they like it or not. "Many of these communities attract retirees and tourists," says Vest, the University of Arizona economist. "In other instances, these communities have simply died off. "
A new burst of mining, with its high wages and the vague promise that it could resurrect past glories, has undeniable appeal. But the boom will inevitably end, and sooner or later Superior will find itself back at square one.
And so it is that Superior is divided, unsure of itself. As the sun hangs low in the West, Chavez expresses the quandary that he shares with the rest of the town.
"Part of me wants the mine to
reopen," he says. "Part of me doesn't."
Jonathan Thompson is editor of High Country News.
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