My Turn: We all use products that come from mines

Producing 'stuff' requires mining

Posted: Wednesday, February 21, 2007

With the hullabaloo over mining these days, we ought to go back to basics for a moment.

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We all need "things" to live, and these things are made out of "stuff" we get from the Earth. We also grow and use plants and animals. We harvest seafood from our rivers and oceans. We're humans, and that's what we do.

The 300 million of us on our piece of the planet now have life expectancies hovering around 77.6 years. We're living healthier, more productive lives, and we use a lot of stuff to achieve that, whether exercise and sporting gear, the latest medical diagnostic equipment or new body parts.

Over this life span, our stuff averages out to a whopping 3.7 million pounds per person. That means each of us requires about 47,500 pounds of newly mined minerals every year. Most of it isn't ours personally - ports, airplanes, schools, hotels, roads, hospitals, water systems, etc., but we use it nonetheless. About half the materials involve energy production - coal, natural gas and petroleum. It's an inconvenient truth that the Earth's abundant mineral resources are where they are - usually not where we'd like them to be.

The Mineral Information Institute calculates that over a lifetime, an average American uses copper (1,319 pounds); stone, sand and gravel (1.71 million pounds); iron ore (32,980 pounds); aluminum (5,975 pounds); cement (72,994 pounds); gold (1,648 troy ounces); phosphate rock (23,435 pounds); coal (588,906 pounds); natural gas (5.78 million cubic feet); lead (854 pounds); petroleum (83,296 gallons); zinc (776 pounds); clay (21,418 pounds); salt (31,040 pounds) and 66,891-plus pounds of other minerals and metals. (Look around; what are your "things" made of?)

The institute calculates our annual consumption of minerals and energy fuels from U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Energy Information Administration commodities summaries. Educators are given the information to help students learn what they use and how they use it. There's a strong case for using less, but not using these materials at all is hardly an option.

People sometimes advocate outright bans against using certain materials because the production of these materials isn't pretty, or causes pollution, or is located too close to home. For example, some people say, "Don't dig that coal; use solar, wind, biomass or geothermal instead."

When a particular energy alternative is advocated, we are seldom told of its risks. Suppose it requires huge subsidies, causes other negative environmental effects or uses more energy to produce than the end product. (News reports now warn that using corn for auto fuel will require millions more farmland acres than projected, and that shortages will likely cause increased food prices and chaos in world grain markets. Didn't anyone anticipate these outcomes before building all those ethanol plants?)

Questions about how and when a proposed substitute could become available and what consumers should use in the meantime are often brushed aside. And the arguments against using a resource such as coal typically disregard today's technology and stringent environmental regulations. Nor do they acknowledge mining today is a dramatically different ball game from the past.

We've also seen examples of companies, excited about developing a promising alternative, become discouraged and frustrated when the very groups once supporting it later oppose it. The residents of Nantucket Sound aren't the only ones opposing environmentally friendly offshore wind farms. And what is a critical component of wind projects' construction? Copper.

Wind farms have adverse effects, as everything does. Life is all about complex trade-offs, and evaluating them is seldom easy. It's legitimate to support consuming less, recycling more and favoring more environmentally benign substitutes to meet human needs. Still, in whatever form, the stuff has to come from somewhere; human needs cannot be disregarded.

Alaska contains phenomenal reserves of mineral resources that we all need, but their measurable economic value is realized only when produced. Their immeasurable value is in improvements to the quality of life of each person whose job it is to produce these resources and in the spin-off benefits enjoyed by the rest of us.

• Paula Easley, an Anchorage public policy consultant, serves on the Resource Development Council's board of directors.

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