ASX 200 mining giants' copper project cops setback

BHP and Rio Tinto are struggling to get the go-ahead for a US copper mine.

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S&P/ASX 200 Index (ASX: XJO) mining giants BHP Group Ltd (ASX: BHP) and Rio Tinto Ltd (ASX: RIO) are both facing another barrier to the planned Resolution Copper project in the US.

BHP describes Resolution Copper as one of the largest undeveloped copper deposits in the world. Rio Tinto is the operator of the project and owns 55%, while BHP owns the other 45%. This project in Arizona could become the largest copper producer in North America.

Copper project delayed again

According to reporting by the Australian Financial Review, there is going to be another legal challenge against the copper project.

Lawyers acting for Apache Stronghold, a group representing some members of the San Carlos Apache tribe, have asked the Court of Appeals to halt the 2014 deal to transfer federal land for the mine.

What does the legal case relate to? It's about the cultural and religious importance on land that is known as Oak Flat.

Lawyer Luke Goodrich from the Becket Fund, a non-profit law organisation that aims to enshrine religious liberty in US law, said:

The sole question in the case right now is when the government authorises the complete physical destruction of the Native American sacred site and ends religious practices there forever, does that substantially burden religious exercise?

Nobody disputes that the…mine would physically destroy the sacred site where Western Apaches and other tribes have worshipped since before European contact.

Becket also said the Apache Stronghold group has non-native allies. The AFR reported that a successful prosecution of the argument could create a "notable legal precedent for religious rights in the US."

Even if BHP and Rio Tinto were to win this round, it was suggested that an appeal in the US Supreme Court is a likely option, where Becket has reportedly won all eight of the previous cases it has tried in the US Supreme Court.

BHP has previously explained the attraction of copper mining and why it wants (growing) exposure to the commodity:

As we move towards a lower carbon future, copper is essential to creating the infrastructure needed for renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. We also believe the demand for copper will continue to grow due to grade declines at existing copper mines, the radical urbanisation of large populations in China and India, and the ongoing electrification of energy and transportation.

What is the response from the ASX 200 mining shares?

The reporting by the Australian Financial Review noted that Rio Tinto CEO Jakob Stausholm had said the company would "work patiently with traditional owners" and has said the majority of local tribes are supportive of the project. The miners will have a chance to officially defend their position in court.

On the Resolution Copper website, the business states the following:

At Resolution Copper, we know we get the best results by listening to community perspectives and partnering with community stakeholders, including Native American tribes of Arizona and New Mexico who have historical ties to the area. We respect the sovereignty of tribal communities and recognize that tribes have cultural interests beyond their reservations. Resolution Copper is committed to preserving Native American cultural heritage while developing partnerships and bringing lasting benefits to the entire region.

We are also working to preserve the cultural heritage of Copper Triangle communities while cleaning up historical mining impacts. We have carefully documented information related to our property's historical structures, restored the historic Magma Hospital and repurposed it for administrative offices, and maintained public access to Queen Creek canyon, including the landmark Claypool Tunnel.

It said it has reduced the land exchange area requested by Resolution Copper from 3,325 acres to 2,422 acres, excluding Gaan Canyon, Apache Leap and portions of Oak Flat. It has also placed Apache Leap in permanent protection under a special management area, with the company giving up roughly 140 acres of private land and setting aside about 700 acres of mining claims.

It seems that there may be a lot of work to do to decide whether this project is going ahead. Until then, the ASX 200 mining shares of BHP and Rio Tinto will have to look to their other copper projects to gain that copper exposure they're looking for.

Motley Fool contributor Tristan Harrison has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia's parent company Motley Fool Holdings Inc. has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.

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