Competitive Strategy in the US Copper Industry after the EPA

Nathan Delaney

From 1970 to 2000, the US copper industry (and the global mining industry in general) experienced significant decline; decline in prices, decline in consumption, and decline in investment. Over this same period, additional challenges emerged for the copper industry – most notably increases in environmental regulation. The establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, 1970) and the development of federal environmental legislation like the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), Superfund (1980), as well as new mine health and safety standards (1977) put increased pressure on industry managers just as the good days of the post-WWII growth era were coming to an end.

The following paper investigates how some US copper firms managed to navigate these challenges and pays special attention to the headwinds caused by new environmental regulations. This paper offers a new perspective and compliments present-day literature concerning the mining industry and its impact on the environment. While most historians have focused squarely on the ecological “destruction” caused by the mining industry, few have bothered to step into the shoes of industry managers and consider how they dealt with such competitive forces in real time. 

Interestingly, the combination of environmental and economic challenges forced industry leaders to pursue new strategies that united cost-cutting and technology upgrades with improved methods of risk management related to poor environmental performance and community relations. Ultimately, those firms that survived the era learned a valuable history lesson: a firm’s historical record was its license to operate in the future.