Clayton Walker: America’s fastest-growing industries increasingly rely on copper

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Operations in the Kennecott's Bingham Copper Mine, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.

This year, Rio Tinto is celebrating the 120th anniversary of Kennecott, a world-class integrated copper mine and metals refining complex outside Salt Lake City. Since 1903, Kennecott has played an important role in securing the nation’s supply of metals and minerals during our most critical times.

For example, copper demand skyrocketed during World War II. Supported by a largely female workforce, Utahns rallied to help America and the world as the Kennecott mine set new global copper production records, producing roughly 30 percent of the copper used by Allied forces. Today, places like Kennecott and our mining operations and investments across America are as important as ever to our economic and national security.

I was born and raised in Salt Lake City. Growing up, I remember visiting the Bingham Canyon Mine and being amazed. Several years later, I enrolled at the University of Utah and graduated with a degree in metallurgical engineering.

Since then, I have traveled the world and worked in numerous countries, but there is no place like home. Today I am back in Utah, running Rio Tinto’s copper operations, including Kennecott.

With our union partners, we provide a resource that has been essential to America’s manufacturing strength over the last century. The sustained union relationship has produced millions of tons of refined copper in addition to copper co-products like gold, silver, tellurium, molybdenum and many more that are increasingly important to the U.S. economy. It’s no exaggeration to say that the families who worked at Kennecott were a key component in America’s dominant global position in copper production through the late 1980s.

Take AJ Jaramillo, a third-generation family member working at Kennecott. AJ’s grandfather started working at Kennecott in 1936 on a drill and blast crew. In the 1950s, AJ’s father worked as a locomotive engineer. Today, AJ is continuing his family’s legacy as a construction coordinator.

Kennecott is still one of the top-producing mines in the world, and with our metals refining complex, we supply approximately 12 percent of domestic demand for final refined copper. Since 2008 alone we’ve produced over 3.4 million tons of refined copper. We’ve continually invested to expand and improve our copper operation, contributing thousands of family supporting jobs and about $1.5 billion annually to Utah’s economy as a large corporate employer, exporter and taxpayer in the state.

Copper’s importance is only increasing as America’s fastest growing industries rely more on it.

Solar panels needed to power just 750 homes require 5.5 tons of copper. A single wind farm requires between 2,000 and 7,500 tons of copper. Electric vehicles need four times more copper than conventional automobiles. Copper is essential in manufacturing computers, smartphones, appliances and medical devices.

Put simply. We need copper.

Despite copper’s essential role in making modern life work in the past, present and future, the United States import reliance has grown from 33% in 2017 to almost 50% today. The U.S. is challenged in mined copper availability and refined copper production for use in our domestic market. This also highlights the vulnerability of many rare earths and critical minerals which are only produced as co-products of copper refining. That’s why a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. Kirsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz) and Sen. Mitt Romney, have called for copper to be designated an official “critical mineral” so that the federal government can more effectively ensure a secure and reliable supply of domestic copper.

Copper demand is projected to double by 2030 and globally to over 55 million tons by 2050 to support the energy transition. Rio Tinto’s Kennecott operations in Utah, combined with new significant supply from Resolution Copper in Arizona can help the U.S. regain a leading role in delivering a secure and sustainable supply of copper and critical minerals.

As we celebrate Kennecott’s 120th birthday, we are grateful for the generations of Utahns that have supported this important economic engine in the state and for our nation. As we plan for the next 120 years, Rio Tinto is preparing to invest billions more in America’s metals and mineral security at Kennecott and across the U.S. to continue to play an important role in shaping our future.

There can be no vibrant, evolving effort to recover these niche critical minerals and metals without a thriving, sustainable policy climate for copper. We must find a way to work together to responsibly, sustainably and intelligently meet the domestic demand for copper and its critical mineral co-products.

Clayton Walker is the Chief Operations Officer of Rio Tinto Copper

Clayton Walker is the chief operations officer of Rio Tinto Copper and is based in Salt Lake City.