The US government said on Friday it backs a 2,400-acre land exchange that would allow Rio Tinto to move forward with its majority-owned Resolution Copper project in Arizona, despite opposition by Native American groups and environmentalists.
In 2014, then-President Barack Obama signed a Pentagon funding bill that approved Rio Tinto’s proposal to exchange land for another parcel nearby, with the caveat that it could not occur until an environmental report on the mine was published. The Trump administration published that report on January 15, clearing the way for the exchange within 60 days.
The US Department of Agriculture said then that more time was needed to “fully understand concerns”, having received “significant input” regarding the transfer of Oak Flat since the documents were released in January.
The decision was made on the heels of global outcry sparked by Rio Tinto after it destroyed ancient Aboriginal rock shelters in Australia. The incident cost several top executives their posts.
The US Justice Department (DOJ) has now filed legal briefs to oppose claims by Apache and conservationist groups, arguing the exchange violates treaties and religious freedom laws, according to Arizona-based The Payson Roundup news site.
The filing, the report says, suggests the Biden administration will follow through on the land exchange.
Rio Tinto has tried for more than a quarter-century to move forward with its Arizona’s copper project. Together with its 45% partner BHP, they have spent more than $2 billion on Resolution Copper to date, including reclamation of the Magma copper mine site and sinking a second shaft to mining depth.
The miners describe Resolution as one of the world’s largest undeveloped copper deposits and estimate it could produce over 20 million tonnes of copper over 40 years.
Arizona recently stymied another copper project, with Canada’s Hudbay Minerals (TSX, NYSE: HBM) currently appealing a 2019 district court decision which put a stop to its proposed Rosemont project, saying it believed that the court had misinterpreted federal mining laws and Forest Service regulations.
Copper is a vital part of green infrastructure from solar power to hydro, thermal and wind energy.