The young girl stands in the sunshine, holding a solar panel, a symbol of a new copper mine's environmental promise.

The slogan above her blond pigtails calls Rosemont Copper "A Bridge to a Sustainable Future." The company's position: "Copper is the essential element to a green economy."

This message comes from a full-color flier Rosemont has published about the open-pit mine it wants to build in the Santa Rita Mountains, about 30 miles southeast of Tucson. The same image and slogan top the home page of Rosemont Copper's website.

The message's essence is not controversial. It is widely agreed that hybrid cars and wind turbines use a lot of copper, as do conventional cars and electric turbines, and that in some cases more copper is used in green products. But how the message is used - to win support for Rosemont - has drawn criticism from opponents of the plan to mine 220 million tons of copper ore yearly.

Local opponents and outside analysts see Rosemont's campaign as an effort to paint an environmentally controversial project green, making it seem necessary to accept tailings piles and waste rock in the Santa Ritas if people want more solar panels.

Last month, Tucson environmentalists held a roast of the Rosemont project, in which they gave the company a fake award "for excellence in brainwashing and greenwashing." It was accepted by the daughter of an environmentalist dressed up like the girl in the Rosemont ad, a solar panel draped around her neck.

"What they're trying to do is change the debate from being about environmental damage to being about the bigger picture," said Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management asked to review the effort.

Rather than just defending the proposed mine's advanced environmental qualities, Calkins said, "they're playing offense." In branding, he said, "unless you are proactive, you can lose control of the discussion."

Indeed, company officials say their public campaigns for the mine in part respond to misinformation by mine opponents. In this case, they say, they are simply making clear what happens with copper beyond the mine - a mine they point out would employ 400 people full time at average salaries of nearly $60,000 per year.

"All we're saying is copper as a whole is important to the green economy," Rosemont President and CEO Rod Pace said. "I think people understand that power lines have copper. People don't understand that if we want to go towards alternative energy, it will require more resources."

When people drive by a mine, they may see signs of the extraction process but don't imagine the end product, added Jamie Sturgess, Rosemont's vice president for sustainability.

"We are trying to help draw a connection," he said. "The mine is essential to producing a product that is essential to our life."

But an opponent says the flier's clear message is: You have to swallow our mine if you want to live green.

"They are trying to make us believe there is that kind of trade-off," said Roger Featherstone, director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition.

Shortage questioned

How essential is Rosemont to the green economy?

Two outside experts say it's not, given the huge worldwide copper supply, and the relatively small contribution Rosemont would make. A new report from a Canadian mining advising firm backs up that claim, at least for the next decade.

Rosemont officials, however, cite research that suggests a copper shortage, or at least sharply higher prices, loom. They point out that Rosemont, if approved, would be the country's third- or fourth-largest copper mine.

Certainly no shortage exists today. Globally, 540 million tons of copper reserves are considered economically recoverable at today's prices, says the U.S. Geological Survey. The U.S. has about 35 million tons.

Rosemont has about 2.5 million tons of proven copper reserves, the USGS says. It would produce about 10 percent of copper mined in the U.S. and more than 1 percent of global production.

"Copper is essential to a green economy. Is this mine essential? That is probably stretching it," said Daniel Edelstein, a USGS copper specialist in Reston, Va. "I won't tell you that Rosemont isn't important, but no mine is essential. Copper is mined in more than 70 countries."

If Rosemont isn't built, the copper it would have produced will be obtained elsewhere, said John Tilton, a research professor at the Colorado School of Mines. We would be more dependent on imports, but we already get copper from Canada, Chile and other countries, he said.

Rosemont has never said the green economy's future rides on one mine, CEO Pace said. He acknowledges the additional copper could be found elsewhere "if we are willing to put jobs overseas."

Reserves plentiful

From 1979 through 2008, the global copper industry produced about 354 million tons of copper, while new discoveries boosted reserves from 385 million tons to 540 million tons, wrote analysts for Canada-based HanOcci Mining Advisers.

"We have consistently added reserves at a rate far exceeding overall production. Does this look like an industry with a discovery problem?" asked Michael Doggett, the Toronto firm's president and chief operating officer.

Copper prices have risen in recent years as demand grew due to economic growth in China, India and other developing nations. Some say we are running out of good copper resources, but the bigger problem is that society hasn't invested the capital to build new mines, Tilton said.

"Decades before, there was an oversupply, and industry didn't believe the new capacity was needed," he said.

There could be a future problem because reserves reaped over the past 30 years came mostly from existing operations, HanOcci Mining Advisers said. By 2020, "the ability to increase reserves and annual output at known mines is at best uncertain," the company said in its recent report.

With global demand growing, "it is pretty clear that we will need a lot more copper mines coming into production," said Mary Poulton, director of the University of Arizona's Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources.

Environmentally, however, the issue of whether Rosemont is needed for the green economy raises another difficult question, said Brad Allenby, an Arizona State University professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering.

"If you are going to mine copper, is it better to do it in Arizona with more controls and public oversight, or is it better to do it where the impacts are less obvious?" he said. "The advantage in Arizona is that people care."

Top uses for copper

If Rosemont does go on line, it won't control where its copper goes or what it's used for. The copper market is global, and Rosemont won't refine its copper or fabricate products.

The top use of copper is for wire and cable, said William Dresher, a former dean of the University of Arizona's College of Mines and president of the International Copper Research Association. The top users in recent years have been China and Western Europe, followed by North America.

Pace acknowledged Rosemont's copper could go into anything from an electric line bringing power into Tucson homes to a coal-fired power plant in China.

green marketing risky

The "green marketing" concept is a way for companies to sell products for their environmental advantage or build their images as environmental stewards.

It is praised by many as an innovative way to get consumers to go green and derided by others as "greenwashing." Generally, green marketing targets more affluent, well-educated people, usually environmentally conscious, who want to avoid buying products that despoil the environment.

A poignant example of the image-building green marketer is BP, said Paul Portney, dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona.

"BP rebranded itself as Beyond Petroleum, and I think had been very successful in convincing the world that among the world's oil companies they were the ones who took the environment most seriously," said Portney, an economist with expertise in energy and the environment.

But the risks in green marketing became apparent when people looked into BP's financial statements and found it was financially dependent on petroleum. Then a 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas raised bigger questions. Even before this year's oil spill, the evidence didn't support BP's claims and undermined its campaign, Portney said.

By contrast, a Phoenix-based public relations strategist said Rosemont's marketing effort appears to be facing the community's concerns about mining head-on. In fact, Rosemont's push to link copper to green energy "may be the strongest argument there is for the mine," said Abbie Fink, vice president of HMA Public Relations and president of the Public Relations Society of America's Phoenix chapter.

Rosemont opponent Featherstone, however, said the company is simply trying to appeal to people who are currently "into being green because it is the hip thing to do right now."

Rosemont's Pace said the company is trying to reach the general public, not a particular interest group: "We want to tailor our message so it reaches as many people as possible."

How Rosemont fits into the green economy

Solar energy

Rosemont says: "New, low-cost photovoltaics rely on copper."

Another view: Most photovoltaic solar panels use less copper than turbines powering more conventional coal and gas-fired and nuclear power plants, said Joseph Simmons, director of the Arizona Research Institute on Solar Energy.

Hybrid cars

Rosemont says: "Hybrid cars use twice the copper of their traditional counterparts."

Other views: General Motors and Ford said hybrids contain more copper than conventional vehicles.

Toyota said it tries to minimize use of copper and other wiring to reduce cars' weight and to have less material that might have to be disposed of, although it acknowledges copper is easily recyclable.

Electric transmission lines

Rosemont says: "New transmission lines for renewable energy will require millions of tons of copper."

Another view: Renewable energy lines do use lots of copper, but all power lines use lots of copper, whether they are transmitting solar energy or not, Simmons said.

Source: Rosemont relies mainly on the Copper Development Association, a nonprofit trade group, for its information about the use of copper in green products.

On StarNet: Read more environment-related articles at azstarnet.com/ news/science/environment

Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com