CASA GRANDE — Once again, the proposed Resolution Copper mine has come into the crosshairs of federal action.
The potential to overturn a 2014 land transfer agreement has increased lobbying and public opinion efforts by both critics and supporters of the project.
Earlier this month, the Pinal Partnership group began a targeted public relations campaign on behalf of Resolution Copper, including urging members to write letters to several key members of the Arizona congressional delegation —Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, as well as Reps. Tom O’Halleran, Greg Stanton and Ann Kirkpatrick.
The letter says that bill H.R. 1884, which is part of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, “would prevent mining from ever happening” and would “prevent the creation of thousands of American jobs, and billions in revenue to the Arizona economy.”
Representatives for Resolution Copper also released their own statement affirming an economic boost to the region and claiming that the project has been years in the making through public engagement and government review.
“We have strong support from local community leaders to build a responsible copper mine that would support more than 3,700 jobs, add $1 billion a year to Arizona’s economy and supply up to one quarter of the nation’s copper demand,” the statement reads. “Mining has co-existed with outdoor recreation, ranching and cultural activities in the Copper Triangle region for over a century, and we are committed to preserving the area’s unique heritage.”
At the same time, the Center for Biological Diversity released a statewide poll showing 74% of Arizonans oppose the Resolution Copper proposal. According to the poll, although the opposition trended toward both Democratic and urban residents, a majority of Republicans polled — 56% — were also against the mine.
Resolution Copper officials say they are planning to release their own polling numbers from August suggesting that “most Arizona voters were unfamiliar with Resolution Copper but after learning more, including what critics say, support for the project grew.”
The proposed copper mine, located near the town of Superior in northern Pinal County, would use a block-cave process to drill the copper ore over several decades. As a result of land subsidence, the area known as Oak Flat would become a crater several miles wide and 1,000 feet deep.
Critics of the mine say that the 2014 land transfer that was passed was snuck into a “must pass” bill at the last minute, after being repeatedly struck down in prior legislative sessions.
While little about the debate over the mine has changed, the past year has seen a dramatic back-and-forth over its future status, with the possible reconciliation bill just the latest in a struggle between strongly entrenched viewpoints.
A 3,000-page Environmental Impact Statement from the U.S. Forest Service, due out at the end of 2020, was instead released at the beginning of the year, just before President Donald Trump left office. The document was quickly rescinded in March by the incoming Biden administration. However, in June, the Justice Department threw out a lawsuit by the Apache Stronghold organization opposing the copper mine, claiming in a brief that the land transfer did not violate existing treaties.
While opposition to the mine has been largely about conservation and indigenous rights — the San Carlos Apache tribe says it has used the land for religious ceremonies for centuries — Resolution Copper has shifted its focus to touting the mine’s ability to provide necessary resources for a national renewable energy transition.
“This is a way for American-produced copper to go through the supply chain and end up in electric vehicles or solar panels,” said Hesston Klenk, manager of Communities and Social Performance for Resolution Copper. “Copper ore bodies are finite. In order for future supply to stay up with demand, new ore bodies have to be developed.”
However, Klenk also confirmed that means at present, the company doesn’t officially know where the copper will ultimately end up. Klenk said it was “most likely” going to stay in U.S. manufacturing due to the locations of national smelters and rising transportation costs.
Superior Mayor Mila Besich, who has long been a supporter of the Resolution Copper mine, reiterated that message during a local radio show appearance last week. Besich argued that communities in the Copper Corridor such as Superior, Globe and Winkelman played an outsized role in bolstering the economy with their supply of natural resources.
“We essentially run the world,” Besich said. “This region needs to rally up and demand more respect. Copper is driving the economy right now.”
Environmentalists argue that a combination of existing copper mines, possible reclamation sites and copper recycling should take precedence in copper production over any new mines.
Another major point of contention has also been about how much water the mining project would use. Water usage has become an extremely urgent issue in Arizona as a result of the decades-long megadrought and historic lows in Lake Mead and the Colorado River, forcing the region into mandated water cuts and threatening the viability of the Central Arizona Project as a continuing source of growth along the Sun Corridor.
Klenk pointed to Arizona’s “forward-thinking” water conservation strategies and said Resolution Copper has maintained nearly 75% of its water use would come from “banked” water that’s currently held in aquifers for future use.
While Resolution Copper’s estimates for water usage imply efficiency much greater than current mines in Arizona, Klenk said that new technology such as “ultra-thickening” and dry stack tailings would dramatically reduce the mine’s water footprint.
Versions of those technologies are currently deployed by Rio Tinto, Resolution’s parent company, in South American mines, but Klenk acknowledged those occurred at a smaller scale than what’s proposed at Oak Flat.
Unless dry tailing methods are used, the mine would create a large toxic tailings pond. Geologist James Wells testified before Congress in April that more conservative estimates of water use for the duration of the mine’s life span would require up to 7% of available groundwater in the east Salt River Valley.
“They are promising they will use a third less water,” said Randi Spivak, Public Lands Program director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “They don’t know if that’s true, but we do know we can't withdraw an unlimited amount of groundwater.”
Spivak, who is unequivocally against the project, said that the method of mining is only being pushed because it is the “cheapest” option but would be “devastating” to the environment.
Klenk also stressed that no matter what, the mine is a slow-moving project that will take years of further permitting and analysis before any copper is extracted.
“We are not actively mining or producing copper at this time,” Klenk said. “What Resolution has been doing for 20 years is studying the ore body and figuring out what the ore grades are, and what technical engineering is required.”
Klenk also said the company has no say currently in when the next draft of the EIS will be re-released.
“It’s frustrating,” Klenk said about waiting on the fate of the reconciliation package, and/or the embedded mining bill. “When the land exchange was passed there was a process defined and a schedule set. We are hopeful the EIS will be republished and the process will continue forward.”
An existing shaft at the Oak Flat site was originally drilled and used by the Magma Copper Company in the 1970s. Klenk said Resolution Copper had rehabilitated that shaft and sunk it farther, down to 7,000 feet below the surface.
Klenk argued that Resolution Copper’s work with the tailing impoundments from that original mine prove responsibility toward post-mine reclamation.
“When you drive through Superior, what used to be tailing piles has been recontoured to blend in,” Klenk said. “It doesn’t look like mountains necessarily, but it has natural vegetation that’s starting to take off now after the monsoons.”
Although it will probably not impact whether the mine is eventually greenlit or not, one of the strongest supports for the mine at the state level, Rep. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, died earlier in September.
“We are deeply saddened by the news of Representative Pratt’s passing,” Klenk said. “Mr. Pratt understood mining and was a champion for rural Arizona. He served his constituents with distinction and always placed community first. His passing will be felt across the state of Arizona for many years to come.”
The reconciliation bill is expected to be voted on in Congress on Thursday.
CASA GRANDE — Gov. Doug Ducey said Lucid Motors’ impact to the region and Arizona has “exceeded our wildest expectation’s” during remarks in Casa Grande as part of the company’s preview week.
Lucid announced it would be delivering Lucid Air Dream Editions to customers next month after breaking ground on an expansion of the Casa Grande manufacturing plant.
“Thank you for being here on this tremendous and exciting day,” Ducey said during an evening reception. “This project has already exceeded our wildest expectations. Lucid is the anchor for Arizona’s rapidly expanding EV ecosystem.”
Ducey said it “feels like last month” when he and Claudia Pavlovich Arellano, former governor of Sonora, first announced Lucid had planned a manufacturing plant in Casa Grande in 2016. Ducey said that even at that time, he knew the decision was a “true win for Arizona” and credited the company with persevering through the pandemic period.
With Lucid, Ducey said that Arizona can now “stand toe to toe” with other states competing for manufacturing companies and also cited Intel in Chandler, Urbix in Mesa and UACJ Whitehall in Flagstaff.
“All these companies are helping to create an ecosystem where manufacturers and suppliers are coming together to build technologies of the future,” Ducey said.
He noted that Lucid’s facilities and expansion would employ 6,000 people and generate almost $100 million in tax revenue for the county and state. Ducey also touted training programs at nearby Central Arizona College, which are designed to prepare students for the local electric vehicle and robotics workforce.
Despite the effusive language at the event, Ducey has taken a more modest approach to facilitating an EV transition in Arizona.
Ducey joined a 2017 agreement with several other states including Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah to promote an “electric vehicle corridor” allowing EV users to drive along major routes within the Southwest. However, Arizona does not have any EV fleet mandates and Ducey has fought with the Arizona Corporation Commission to avoid enacting zero-emissions mandates for the state.
“I look forward to seeing those cars on the road very soon,” Ducey said.
Ducey also took a moment to acknowledge the passing of Casa Grande resident and state Rep. Frank Pratt, who died last week.
“Pratt was one of the good guys in public service,” Ducey said. “I know he would have been incredibly proud of this new facility.”
PHOENIX — The Arizona Supreme Court refused Wednesday to let the state start enforcing its new ban on school mask mandates, at least for the time being.
In a brief order Wednesday, the justices rebuffed a bid by Attorney General Mark Brnovich to immediately suspend the Monday ruling by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper that provisions of four separate pieces of legislation were illegally enacted. She said lawmakers failed to comply with constitutional requirements that bills be limited to a single subject and that the title of each measure inform people of what it contains.
The justices, however, indicated a willingness to review her ruling on an expedited basis, setting a deadline of Friday for both sides of the dispute to file any paperwork. But none of that is a guarantee that they will buy arguments by Brnovich that Cooper exceeded her authority in invalidating the challenged provisions.
What’s at stake is far more than the law, which was supposed to take effect Wednesday, prohibiting local school boards from requiring students and staff to wear masks while they are on campus.
Cooper, in an extensive ruling, also voided a host of other measures, including limits how schools can teach about race, ethnicity and gender, prohibiting universities and community colleges from requiring proof of vaccination or use of masks, limiting the powers of Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, and even establishing a special Senate committee to review the results of the just-completed audit.
Brnovich argued all that requires immediate attention of the justices.
“The trial court’s ruling carries significant implications for the operation of state government,’’ he said in his filings. “And the state will continue to suffer harm if the trial court’s ruling is not swiftly overturned, allowing the challenged provisions to immediately go into effect.’’
Gov. Doug Ducey separately said he is looking at challenging Cooper’s ruling.
His worry is more practical: It could affect his ability to negotiate a budget with state lawmakers in future years if they cannot use the same practices to lump various issues — unrelated according to the judge — into a single bill. That is designed to corral votes by getting legislators who might oppose a specific provision to go along in order to get approval for the measures they want.
“The budgets that I’ve signed have had some customary practices,’’ Ducey said. “And this was one of them.’’
In the meantime, that ban on mask mandates remains a legal nullity. And several school districts that had been waiting for the ruling have since decided to keep their bans in place.
And Ducey is going to let that situation remain. The governor said Wednesday he does not intend to issue a new executive order prohibiting school boards from enacting or enforcing such rules.
“This is going to be decided in court,’’ he said.
How quickly remains to be seen.
In seeking Supreme Court intervention, Brnovich argued that Cooper’s order “constitutes irreparable harm to the state and the public interest.’’
“It is well established that a state suffers irreparable injury whenever an enactment of its people or their representatives is enjoined,’’ he wrote. “The (trial) court’s ruling and judgment, which declares multiple provisions of duly-enacted state law unconstitutional, alters the delicate balance between the elected branches of government and the state.’’
But it remains to be seen whether the justices agree with Cooper that the laws were not “duly enacted.’’
It starts, she said, with the constitutional provision which says every legislative act “shall embrace but one subject and matters property connected therewith, which subject shall be expressed in the title.’’ More to the point, Cooper noted that the constitution says anything in a bill that is not reflected in the title those provisions “shall be void.’’
What lawmakers approved, she said, were four bills with general titles about appropriations and budget procedures.
“Their function was to enact laws to effectuate the budget,’’ Cooper wrote. “It was not to enact laws prohibiting mask mandates, regulating school curriculum, or authorizing special interest projects unrelated to the budget or budget reconciliation.’’
Brnovich, for his part, told the justices that Cooper is exceeding her authority to tell lawmakers what they can and cannot do.
“The court refused to recognize that the constitution does not define what is ‘necessary’ for inclusion in a ‘budget reconciliation’ bill,’’ he said. And Brnovich argued that any effort by Cooper to decide that issue by looking into what is necessary to effectuate the budget — the stated purpose of reconciliation bills — “raise a political question that is left for the legislature to decide.’’
“There are strong prudential reasons why the judicial power does not extend to determining whether budgetary measures are sufficiently related or tied to budgeting, thereby rendering it an unreviewable political question.’’
Cooper heard and dismissed that contention, saying it is precisely the role of courts to decide whether acts of other branches of government are constitutional.
If that argument doesn’t work, Brnovich has others about why what is in each of the bills really does relate to the budget.
“These provisions address the operations of publicly funded schools, including whether public monies can be spent to teach critical race theory and whether publicly funded school can condition employment or attendance or wearing face coverings or obtaining COVID-19 vaccinations,’’ he said.
Ditto, he said, to provisions in another bill relating to elections.
For example,he said the bill limits the use of budget funds to purchase specified ballot paper, bars local governments from using public funds to enforce mask mandates against public businesses, and decides that it should be his office — and not the secretary of state — that spends public money defending state election laws.
Cooper sniffed at that argument when it was presented to her.
“The state’s view would allow the legislature to re-define ‘budget reconciliation’ to mean anything it chooses,’’ she wrote. “Going forward, the legislature could add any policy or regulatory provision to a budget reconciliation bill, regardless of whether the measure was necessary to implement the budget (and) without notice to the public.’’
Brnovich does have a fall-back position if the justices conclude that Cooper, in fact, was correct in concluding that legislators acted unconstitutionally.
He told the justices that they have never addressed this specific question of the scope of legislative power. And, given that, Brnovich believes that her ruling should instead be prospective only, allowing the challenged provisions to take effect this time but giving fair warning to future lawmakers that such maneuvers are no longer permissible.