University of Arizona mining, mineral expertise shines in Washington, D.C.

The university convened key leaders across government, industry and academia on Capitol Hill to discuss sustainable production and cultivating the next generation workforce

April 26, 2024

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Panelists and moderators of the Copper is Critical event in Washington, D.C. pose for a picture.
Panelists and moderators of the Copper is Critical event in Washington, D.C. pose for a picture.

As Congress seeks to secure the U.S. critical mineral supply chain and reduce foreign reliance, the University of Arizona is driving cutting-edge research to pioneer sustainable mining practices, cultivate the domestic mining workforce, and power the national transition to renewable energy and next generation defense technology.

University leadership and faculty led insightful discussions on those topics “Copper is Critical,” on Capitol Hill on April 2 with leaders from government and industry, including Colorado School of Mines, the University of Texas at El Paso, BHP, National Mining Association, Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration Inc. (SME), Freeport-McMoRan, Rio Tinto and Komatsu Mining.

Designating Copper as Critical

Seventy percent of the nation’s copper is produced in the state of Arizona. Despite the mineral’s indispensable role to the United States and to the global economy, it is not considered a critical mineral by the U.S. Geological Survey. David Hahn, Craig M. Berge Dean of the College of Engineering previewed the latest International Energy Forum report, highlighting that in the next 30 years, it’s imperative that the U.S. produce more copper than ever historically, which would require bringing a new mine online every year. This last occurred in 2021.

“Bringing a mine on every year seems impossible,” said Hahn. “It needs to ramp up and that requires a significant shift in the public’s understanding of how we can do this work in a safe, sustainable manner.”

Recently, the Congressional Western Caucus learned firsthand how the university is connecting faculty across disciplines to educate future leaders of the industry. A tour of the university’s San Xavier Underground Mining Laboratory was part of a larger border excursion led by U.S. Rep. Juan Ciscomani, representing Arizona’s 6th Congressional District.

Developing the Talent Pipeline for Critical Mineral Production

Several panelists mentioned the lengthy permitting process being a hindrance to the industry’s growth. Kray Luxbacher, Greg and Lisa Boyce leadership chair of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering, estimated it can take anywhere from two to twenty years. Regardless of the timetable, a new mine would still need miners.

“To produce minerals, we need more mines, but we lack a collective workforce in the U.S.,” said Luxbacher. “We are one of only 14 colleges nationwide to produce graduates ready to enter the industry as soon as they turn their tassel.”

The need for an educated and skilled mining workforce is urgent, according to Marc LeVier, 2023 president of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration (SME). Less than 200 engineers graduated from schools accredited in mining and engineering, but the industry has the capacity to hire 600 annually, he said.

“To accommodate the industry’s needs across mineral commodities, we’ll need 350 new mines. The workforce that goes with that is going to drive a demand that will increase three to four times at least.”

The Mining Schools Act would create a grant through the Department of Energy to support mining and recruitment efforts. According to Mary Kathrine Kirlin, manager of government and political affairs for the National Mining Association, rather than relying on foreign sources for these critical minerals, we could be mining them domestically with the best natural resources under the best environmental safety standards.

“We need to show people that we are committed to environmental stewardship, at the forefront of technological advancement and that there are careers to be had that attract a wide range of skillsets,” she said.

The university will continue collaborating with industry representatives and policymakers in order to lead conversations that ultimately result in sustainable solutions in Arizona and nationwide.

The University of Arizona hosted the School of Mining & Mineral Resources’ Mining Social License Summit in Tucson on April 25 and 26.


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