The Future of Copper and the Future of Bougainville

By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher

The mass transition to renewable energy will require a fundamental redesign of much of our technology and the infrastructure that supports it. Copper will be required in far greater quantities than it is currently.

A July 2022 analysis by S&P Global has identified that there will be a shortfall in the supply of copper as economies try to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Without the available copper, it will not be possible to implement the technological changes required for a renewable economy.

Even if major economies can’t reach their reduction targets (a likely outcome), there will nevertheless be a notable increase in demand for copper and an eventual shortfall. This predictable shortfall will drive strategic national decisions. As copper is, or will be, so central to the economy of the emerging nation of Bougainville, this global demand for copper will direct Bougainville’s politics in the coming decades. Due to its resources and location in the Pacific, Bougainville will find itself at the center of the Western Powers ongoing campaign against China.

The S&P Global report analyzes the technological solutions that are currently being implemented to achieve the net-zero emissions goals established by different nations and finds that all aspects of the renewable energy transition will need more copper than current alternatives. The automotive sector is projected to be the biggest driver of copper demand because electric vehicles require significantly more copper than their internal combustion equivalents, but there are also smaller projected increases from transmission and distribution, and power generation. Emerging economies will also contribute to this greater demand for copper.

As the report notes, China is a key player in all phases of the copper industry:

China holds a preeminent position in copper smelting (47%), refining (42%), and usage (54%), in addition to its sizable position in production, making it the epicenter of world copper.

To maintain these high levels, China is the world’s largest importer of copper ores and concentrates.
China has invested heavily in overseas copper projects, particularly in Africa and is also expanding its diplomatic and commercial presence in the Pacific, where the nation of Bougainville is looking to re-open its large copper mine, which has been shut for over 30 years.

The Panguna mine was established in 1969 while the territory was under Australian colonial control as part of Papua New Guinea and soon became a source of contention with the local population. Bougainville Copper Limited, a subsidiary of Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia, operated the mine from 1972 to 1989, when locals forced the mine’s closure towards the beginning of a decade-long conflict. In these years, the mine produced 3 million tonnes of copper, 306 tonnes of gold, and 784 tonnes of silver.

Bougainville made an initial play for independence in 1975 as PNG was itself gaining independence from Australia, but was unsuccessful. The territory remained part of PNG, under a marginal degree of autonomy. The Panguna mine generated 44% of PNG’s foreign currency earnings while it operated, but only a small proportion of this flowed to Bougainville. In April 1988 the local landowners association filed a compensation claim against BCL and in November protestors sabotaged powerlines with stolen explosives.

In 1989, the uprising closed the mine and the PNG government declared a state of emergency. The PNG military engaged in a brutal campaign of repression and in 1990 imposed a blockade on the island. Former PNG PM Sir Michael Somare has testified that Rio Tinto’s influence over the government of PNG was so great that it directed government operations and even supplied resources for the fight. In 1996, the government of Julius Chan entered into an agreement with mercenaries Sandline International (who subcontracted to the South African Executive Outcomes). One of the long-term aims of the plan was detailed in a secret report to the government in 1996:

Retake and hold Panguna mine – this is the key element to the problem – the cause of it, the symbol of it and probably the end of the conflict.

The Sandline Affair, as it became known, resulted in Chan’s resignation under military and popular pressure.

The Bougainville combatants only declared a permanent ceasefire in 1998 and under the 2001 peace agreement, the territory was guaranteed an independence referendum.

When the Autonomous Bougainville Government passed the Bougainville Mining Act 2015, it converted BCL’s leases into exploration licenses and subsequently refused to renew them. In July 2016, Rio Tinto transferred half of its shares in BCL to the ABG and half to PNG (and in the process attempted to distance itself from any responsibility for the environmental and health effects of the mine ). The remaining shareholders are public and institutional, and the PNG government has committed to transferring its shares to Bougainville.

In November 2019, 98% of Bougainvilleans voted for independence from PNG and initiated a process of negotiations.

Although there is still a judicial review pending into the refusal to extend BCL’s exploration licenses, and BCL is not the only party to have made claims to the mine, a May 2022 article from the ABG announcing that the mine will reopen was explicit:

The ABG and the Panguna landowners have also agreed that the government with the landowners will jointly establish a completely new local Bougainville entity to develop the mine, and not an existing entity that has had history with the Panguna Mine.

ABG President Ishmael Toroama was also explicit about Panguna’s role in Bougainville’s independence:

The Panguna Mine was the economic guarantee for Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975, in the same manner the Panguna will be the economic guarantor for Bougainville’s Independence.

Bougainville will need sizeable investment, $5-6b, to reopen Panguna and is currently reliant on support from the central government in PNG and foreign aid. It will need external partners to fund the re-opening of the mine and get it operational.

The history of violence and environmental damage means that locals are unlikely to look kindly on any incarnation of Rio Tinto or BCL. The Hawke government in Australia (which provided substantial financial assistance) supported PNG’s attempts to prevent Bougainvillean independence and encouraged a military response.

China has been expanding its interest in the region and Bougainville is a natural target for a Chinese charm campaign, as evidenced by its recent involvement in the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands are Bougainville’s closest neighbor, both geographically and culturally.

In 2019, the Solomon Islands began to recognize the PRC instead of Taiwan. This followed a nearly 15 year “peacekeeping” mission led by Australian soldiers and police. In 2021, Australian peacekeepers temporarily returned after fanning anti-Chinese sentiments in Malaita. In April 2022, the Solomon Islands and China signed an agreement allowing the former to request security assistance and the latter to make ship visits.

The response from the Australian state at realizing it didn’t have hegemonic control over every surrounding nation was predictably unhinged, with then PM Scott Morrison laying down vague and entirely unenforceable ‘red lines’. Australian media have continued to fearmonger over the relationship between the Solomon Islands and China, and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman warned that the US was watching the relationship carefully, but China has continued to strengthen its ties and presence there.

As China looks to secure future supplies of copper and expand its diplomatic recognition and presence in the Pacific, Bougainville is an attractive prospect. For Bougainville, in need of foreign investment to materialize its independence, Chinese engagement could well be more appealing than another Western mining company. In any case, the increasing importance of Bougainville’s copper deposits during the renewable energy transformation and its emergence as a new country in the Pacific will place it at the center of the strategic struggle between China and the Western powers in the coming decades.

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  1. Mike Elwin

    Unintended consequences. The green economy is going to produce many wonderful opportunities for tearing into the earth.

  2. Revenant

    One extra fact, when reading this to yourself: Bougainville is pronounced “Bogan-vil” :-)

      1. Tom Stone

        My late uncle David Fuller (USMC) did not find his visit there in 1943 a pleasant one.
        When it looked like Uncle Sam might offer me an all expenses tour of SE Asia he gave me a copy of Errol Braithewaites book “An Affair of Men” which I was too young to appreciate at 18 years of age.
        I miss him, he was one of the most gentle Men I have ever met.
        Two Pacific campaigns and then Inchon to the reservoir and back.
        One of the very few times I ever heard him speak of War was when he was drunk and talking to another Vet.
        ” I brought all of my Men back, all but two of them dead.”
        There are no good Wars.

  3. Mikerw0

    There is zero chance we will reorder and reorganize the global economy without massive dislocation in any reasonable period of time. Copper is just one example. The economy we have now was built over a long period of time, had periodic dislocations and we live with survivor bias — we forget the technologies and approaches that either didn’t work or failed along the way.

    Metals have protracted and slow responses to demand changes. So, expect large scale shortages.

  4. Screwball

    I think we need an adult conversation on how we transition away from fossil fuels. There are so many questions, and it seems, not enough answers. Minerals; how and where do we get them? Does nuclear have a place? Wind? Solar? Hydrogen? How do we manage this transition in respect to EROEI (energy returned on energy invested)? How do we dispose of/recycle some of these materials?

    I’ve had conversations with people about lithium and what the environmental cost and damage it may cause. People seem to think there is a plan. A workable plan, but I’m not so sure. I was told lithium could be mined on an asteroid and brought back here, so we have all we need. How costly is that? Doesn’t seem to simple and cheap to me. And like this article, copper is another problem.

    Color me skeptical we do this right. Who are the adults in the room now calling the shots? We live in a for profit world. Profit doesn’t care if the plan makes sense, only that it makes someone money. Wrong approach.

    1. ambrit

      Mining lithium from an asteroid might look like “pie in the sky,” but it is technically feasible. The drawback there is that there is as yet no developed space mining industry. Such a move will have to begin from scratch.
      The initial costs of establishing such an endeavour will be so large as to be restricted to Nation States, perhaps several acting in concert.
      Before anyone puts forward the example of Musk et. al. as “proof” of the libertarian method of space exploration and exploitation, consider the importance of State tax advantages and investments in the “success” of such “Public Private Partnerships.” Again, the State is intimately involved.
      I can foresee China and Russia spearheading a BRICS funded space exploitation programme to ‘offshore’ in the highest sense some of the environmentally degrading mining and smelting processes.
      Watch this Space, as the saying goes.

  5. John

    In the “green transition” it is always assumed that happy motoring in private individual cars and flying around in jet airplanes will be the only modes of public transportation in the USA. No talk of communistic mass transportation by an electrified rail system…or electric trollies and buses in cities.
    China meanwhile has built out high speed rail throughout the country on top of a diverse transportation system that also includes freeways and private cars.
    The inability to plan beyond the next quarters grift will come back to bite us badly.

  6. Fred Up

    I really like your writing style, John. You are a great addition to the site. Thank you for helping me to understand the world.

  7. Alex Cox

    Arizona has substantial copper deposits. Phelps Dodge and others closed many mines in the 1980s when demand was low. The copper is still there.
    Do an internet search for images of Arizona copper deposits for some amazing sights.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      There are vast copper mines in the US – but its a notoriously cyclical mineral – Butte Montana has gone through a remarkable series of booms and busts thanks to copper prices. The streets there are eerily quiet now, but if you see photos from the 1920’s the town looks like Chicago or San Francisco.

      Copper miners have always had to be mobile. There are ancient deposits in the very south western corner of Ireland that have been mined for 5,000 years or more – some of the early Bronze Age mines are still visible (the tin for bronze came from Cornwall). There is a nice twitter thread here on a beautiful forest in Beara – it regenerated when the family who owned it moved to Montana to work the mines there.

      It is of course polluting – my uncle in Tipperary had problems from an old exploratory copper mineshaft on his land (I still have nuggets of copper rich stone he gave me as a child). Although its not nearly as bad as the old lead or silver mines. So much depends on what else is in the mineral deposits. Copper itself isn’t a big problem – its lead and other minerals that are often in the same deposit that can poison the land for centuries.

  8. Adam1

    While not an unlimited source, there is likely a lot of copper in need of recycling that’s just been abandoned. A few years ago a new YMCA was built down the road from me. Part of the land was where the road used to be decades ago before it was straightened. However the power and utility lines still ran the old road route, and hence were in the way of the lot development. The power lines got buried and I assumed so did the telephone lines, however while sitting at the traffic light a couple weeks ago it dawned on me that the big fat DS3 telephone line had just been cut short instead of being buried along with the power lines. The current owner of the network is Citizens Communications and they are notorious for not spending any money on their network. It was probably easier to just cut it and leave the rest than to take down the whole line which could easily run for miles. There are about 512 twisted pairs of copper wire in a DS3 and while it’s super thin wire, I’d suspect it adds up fast across 1024 wires stretched mile over mile.

  9. Cristobal

    Very interesting post. I have a practical question regarding copper, copper wire actually. When living in the US I rehabillitated a number of old houses and did lots of wiring – wrestling number 12 and number 14 Romex cable. Those contain hefty solid copper conductors. Of course the US service is 120 v. In Europe on the other hand, the service is 220 v. and the standard calls for individual conductors made of very thin stranded copper – much less robust than the US code calls for. In fact it looks like automotive wiring for 12v. systems. I know that stranded conductors are much more effficient than solid ones, and the voltage change (I think) results in less resistence. How did the US get an electrical code that requires such massive use of copper? Is it a technical reason? I am sure there was plenty of politicking back in the day, but do any of the commentators here know a little of the history? I would be curious to know the difference in copper requirements for a typical residence in the US versus Europe. Anyone?

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