BHP is seeking direct engagement with Native American communities living near a vast proposed copper mine in Arizona, as its project partner, Rio Tinto, strives to build trust among Native owners.
Resolution Copper, which has enough metal to meet 25% of projected US demand for 40 years, is 55% owned by Rio and 45% owned by BHP.
The Apache tribe of San Carlos, who have always opposed the project, have said that Resolution’s proposed underground mine will cause a massive crater, nearly two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep, that would engulf Oak Flat, a site of special religious importance to the tribe.
Speaking after BHP’s shareholders meeting in London on Thursday, CEO Mike Henry said it was “appropriate” to engage with the indigenous groups around Resolution Copper to gain a “full and rich understanding of the local dynamics.”
While Henry said BHP was “very supportive of Rio,” he added: “We think it’s appropriate that we have some direct interaction, just so we can gauge the mood in the group. But it is not that we seek a leadership role. . . that depends a lot on Rio. “
The battle for Oak Flat is likely to be one of many disputes over the land, as miners seek to develop new “mineral bodies” to meet the growing demand for copper, which is needed to make electric vehicles and wind turbines.
Rio seriously damaged its credentials among indigenous peoples last year when it destroyed a 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal site in Australia to make way for a mine expansion.
A Native American leader in Arizona declined to meet with Rio CEO Jakob Stausholm when he visited the state this month.
Terry Rambler, president of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, said he would rather spend time lobbying Congress to reverse a land transfer agreement that would give Resolution Copper access to all of the metal under the site, 65 miles to the East of Phoenix.
Henry, who was asked if he felt that BHP could do a better job of getting people on board than Rio, said his company had a “very strong track record” of engaging with First Nations peoples, although “not it was perfect”.
“We support your [Rio’s] efforts, but we believe that a certain degree of direct interaction is appropriate for us to have a full and rich understanding of local dynamics with First Nations parties, as well as with local communities, ”added Henry.
Large mining pools are trying to increase their exposure to copper, a metal that will be crucial as the world shifts to cleaner forms of energy and energy. However, large deposits such as Resolution Copper are increasingly difficult to find.
The Apache tribe of San Carlos is supporting a bill currently being considered in the U.S. Congress that would overturn the 2014 legislation that approved a land exchange that allowed the transfer of 2,400 acres of national forest lands, including Oak Flat, a Resolution Copper.
Rio executives believe it will be possible to go ahead with a smaller mine even if the land swap agreement is repealed. Henry said that BHP would have to analyze the economics of any renovated project before making a decision on whether to develop the deposit.
“We would have to look at the exact parameters of an updated project if that was the case. Now, if it was high performance sufficiency and had a very important upward growth potential. . . local stakeholders supported us, so of course we would consider it. “
At Thursday’s meeting, BHP investors in London voted in favor of its climate strategy, and 83 percent of the vote backed a resolution to pass its plan to tackle carbon emissions.