Our Backyard is Better: Onshoring Mining of Crucial Minerals

Sept. 1, 2023

An Interview with Misael Cabrera, Director, School of Mining & Mineral Resources

Flag and cell phone

Why is the University of Arizona uniquely positioned to be invested in and invest in mining?

The kinds of innovation the industry needs require multiple disciplines. No other university in the United States has all the fields crucial to mining in one spot: mineral processing, geomechanics, sustainable resource development, mine operations, public health, environmental science, anthropology, business, economic geology, geophysics, automation, hydrology, and the San Xavier Underground Mining Laboratory.

Our new School of Mining & Mineral Resources serves as the connective tissue between disciplines and resources. We spark innovation and facilitate the integration of technologies to solve significant problems at scale.

In addition, we are in Tucson, a city known worldwide for its proximity to major mines and home to many technology companies, including Caterpillar and Komatsu.


Do you think the primary concern of the new School of Mining & Mineral Resources should be the well-being of the state of Arizona, or does it owe a greater loyalty to the nation or even the global population?

As part of a land grant university, I believe we should think globally but act and focus locally.


Mining has a pretty bad reputation. Can mining have a positive impact that outweighs the negative?

Mining is not the enemy of the environment—it is essential to saving it. Very few people have as much sweat equity in the environment as I do, and I can say unequivocally that we cannot decarbonize without mining. Mining is a catalyst for a green future.

Pre-regulation legacy mines did have a negative environmental and social impact; that's a reality. The problem comes when the industry's past is collapsed into the present and forecasted into the future. Today's heavily regulated, modern U.S. mines operate under strict controls imposed by State and Federal agencies as well as institutional investors. Collapsing legacy mines with modern mines is akin to saying that salad and pizza are the same because they are both food.


By nature, doesn't mining cause ecological damage, at least locally?

Everything has its trade-offs, but today's modern U.S. mines are heavily regulated, and those impacts are mitigated and controlled. And that's not true across our planet.


If you had to name one thing that accounts for your optimism about the future of mining, what would that be?

No other nation matches our sheer ability to innovate under stress. During World War II, we took the manufacturing of bombers from a multi-month effort to producing sixteen B-17 bombers per day. We innovate in ways the rest of the planet can't or won't.

We have researchers at the University of Arizona developing technologies to extract rare earth elements from waste streams in mines. Others are exploring using ecologically safe sugar compounds instead of acids to leach minerals from ore. Other UArizona researchers are working on automation to make the mining workplace safer. And this is just the beginning of what is possible.


Why are you a proponent of onshoring the mining process for most minerals we need in the United States?

We not only have environmental protections in the United States, we enforce them. This is simply not true in many other countries. If we are going to save the planet from the ravages of climate change, we'll need to mine somewhere. When we offshore, we're usually not accounting for all the costs involved.

We can produce most of the minerals we consume more cleanly, more efficiently, and with higher quality than other places on the planet. When we consume minerals produced elsewhere, transportation creates a big carbon footprint rarely accounted for. We also need to consider the energy spent for mineral extraction and processing. Many countries use coal, whereas we have a more balanced energy portfolio.

The challenge is that some of us prefer not to see the costs involved in our consumption. We need to keep our eyes wide open to the global impacts of our choices and actions. In my opinion, a country that has environmental laws and enforces them should be a big part of the solution.


By onshoring, might we be adding to a critical minerals arms race, a scramble for resources that leads to irresponsibility, inefficiency, and possibly even violence?

Unmet demand is a harbinger of many problems and should be avoided. By onshoring responsible mining, we can bolster sustainable supplies of many critical minerals. Sufficient supplies, in turn, reduce the possibility of shortages leading to trouble.


Our demand far outstrips production at highly regulated, modernized mines—or all mines, for that matter. Is there merit to the argument that our mineral-dependent way of life is simply impossible to sustain, or do you stand by your belief that we can innovate our way out of it?

Some groups believe the human species itself is unsustainable. I disagree with that wholeheartedly. History teaches us that, at every turn, we are capable of innovating in such a way that improves not just our own lives but the lives of all species on the planet. At a 2023 summit on critical minerals, Senator Sinema said very eloquently that some people believe we'll save the planet through magic, while the rest of us think we'll save the world through innovation and technology. I happen to be with the latter crowd.

As soon as the human species discovered fire and started to grow and proliferate, we began to have environmental and social impacts. But the advent of innovation and technology helps us address problems as we become aware of them. For example, we don't talk about the hole in the ozone layer anymore. Why? Because we have mitigated the problem to a large degree. Did we do that by forbidding people to have more children? Did we do that by making air conditioning illegal? No. We did that through science and innovation.  


What do you think about emphasizing solutions such as reducing our consumption?

For the past 50 years, the environmental movement has conducted a worldwide survey: We asked billions of people if they were willing to sacrifice and pay more to save the planet. The answer: We consume more fossil fuels today than ever before.

We'll never guilt people into saving the planet, especially not soon enough to make a difference in climate change. There is zero evidence that enough people will altruistically change their behaviors enough to make a difference. It simply will not work. 

What will work? An economic alternative that comes through technology, like solar panels, wind, geothermal, and other technologies requiring minerals.

That said, innovation isn't just about production. We are developing technologies to use, reuse, and recycle mineral resources in much better ways. Copper is almost infinitely recyclable; we just have to figure out how to recover it, and people are working on that problem. I believe we'll utilize our limited resources more effectively over time.


Isn't there a big gap between our increasing demand for minerals—especially minerals needed for green technologies—and the innovation we need? It takes time to employ new technologies and get facilities up and running. What's going to happen between here and there?

If we look at the development of the human species, we can see that necessity is the mother of invention and action. I am very hopeful about our ability to implement those technologies and make them affordable. The biggest challenge to renewable energy is that we don't yet have safe and economical battery storage. But several exciting technologies are being researched across universities and the military, and a breakthrough is on its way. Once we figure out battery storage capacity, renewables will become more practical and affordable. In Arizona, where we have 350-plus sunny days a year, we will be able to harness the sun in ways that we can't today because we lack battery storage.

We need to mine more in the near term because of today's demand for green energy, but over time, we'll develop a circular economy in minerals that's more cost-effective than digging large holes in the ground to extract ore. And once that happens, businesses will do what they always do: maximize profits by reducing costs.


Will this require governments to get even more involved in the industry?

Humans are loathe to give up our free will, so the best solutions come as a function of innovation in response to demand. Government and policy play important roles, but they are most effective and long-lasting when they reflect what people want anyway. We need to innovate and design with the end user in mind. Tesla is a perfect example of this. People buy those cars not because they are green but because they are cool.


What federal policies do we need immediately for the transition from fossil fuels to happen as fast and effectively as possible?

A congressional resolution should acknowledge the sheer necessity of domestic mining projects. Congress needs to clearly state that mining in our own backyard is better for the environment, the economy, and the consumer.

For the state of Arizona, getting copper on the list of critical minerals is especially important. Copper has been recognized as a critical material by the Department of Energy, but it needs to be recognized by the U.S. Geological Survey to benefit from policies like the Fast-41 Act. Fast 41 streamlines full environmental review and protection, without cutting corners, to get new facilities permitted in 2 years instead of the current average of 16 years. The FAST-41 process should be available to many more mining projects. Ninety-five percent of the total elapsed time in permit approval processes is just waiting.


What can you tell students about their career prospects in mining?

The University of Arizona currently has a 100% placement rate at an average salary of $80,000 annually for mining engineers; other majors are similar. We also average $8,000 per year in scholarships per mining engineering student. All careers are in high demand in the mining industry, and this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future.

When young people hear the word mining, most think of someone with a dirty face and a hard hat with a light. If you want to work with your hands or in the dirt, there are certainly opportunities for that, but today's mining industry is also technologically advanced. There are fully automated mines where workers operate joysticks in control rooms instead of driving trucks down into the pit. Any student who acknowledges the essential nature of minerals for our future has a place in the industry.


What should a student interested in mining do to get started?

Contact our Recruitment Coordinator, Mario Muñoz (mariomunoz@arizona.edu) and visit our website at www.mining.arizona.edu. If you are interested in mining but have a passion for a major that is not mining-specific, explore a minor in sustainable mineral resources from our School of Mining & Mineral Resources. We call it "the minor for any major." It will be a differentiator for those students regarding their job search.