Why thefts of copper wire aren't likely to stop any time soon
Professor who wrote book on subject says legal changes may be needed
When Ben Stickle set out to understand the phenomenon of metal theft, he interviewed a few dozen of the culprits to see how they operated.
What he discovered was that many were relatively well-educated.
Most had previously worked with metal in some capacity — perhaps at a construction job — and understood its value. They made calculated decisions about the risk of being arrested versus the amount of money they could make by selling it at a scrap metal yard.
"One of the interesting things that they would tell me is that the price really did have an impact on them," says Stickle, who published the results of his research five years ago in a book titled Metal Scrappers and Thieves: Scavenging for Survival and Profit. He is now an associate professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
"They may not make the 'rational' choice that you and I would make because we have different rationality," he says. "But it's still a logical choice to engage in this criminal activity, and a lot of that's driven based on price."
Dozens of incidents
In Nova Scotia, the province's electric utility has seen a significant increase in thefts of copper wire over the past year, and Bell Aliant has said the same thing is happening in New Brunswick.
Matt Drover, senior director of transmission and distribution operations at Nova Scotia Power, says the company has recorded dozens of such thefts in 2022. He would not disclose the exact number or the financial cost.
In October, the company issued a news release in an attempt to dissuade would-be thieves, warning that they were putting themselves and others "at risk of severe injury or death."
A theft at a substation in Spryfield the next month led to a brief power outage that affected more than 11,000 Nova Scotia Power customers. The utility had to shut off the power so that workers could safely conduct emergency repairs.
Meanwhile, the price of copper has been high for most of the past two years, in line with Stickle's argument that price is a driving factor.
Bridgewater-based BMI Ltd., which runs a recycling centre, listed its purchase price for copper on Dec. 23 at between $1.35 and $4.51 per pound, depending on the grade.
Statistics Canada says metal-related thefts in 2021 in Canada were at their highest level since 2013 — the last time copper prices were in the same range as current rates.
Stickle doesn't expect the problem to go away any time soon, partly because demand for copper is likely to remain strong "as we move to a more electrified economy."
But there are steps that can be taken to counter the trend. Some are already underway.
Drover says that when Nova Scotia Power does repairs after a theft, workers use wire made from a material that has little resale value.
"We do it proactively as well," he adds. "Certain substations are targeted each year to proactively go in and replace all the wire."
The utility is also increasing surveillance "to try to catch people in the act of stealing the wire, and we can share that information with the local authorities," he says.
There are legal avenues to pursue as well.
Nova Scotia and some other provinces have passed legislation requiring scrap metal dealers and recycling companies to keep records of their transactions, so that the information on sellers can be passed along to law enforcement if needed.
But Stickle believes that approach is ineffective, since thieves can find simple workarounds such asking others to sell stolen metal on their behalf.
Instead, he says taking into account the cost of damage caused by a metal theft could be more of a disincentive.
"If you go into a house and you want to rip the copper wires and the pipes out of it, well you do that and you might cause $30,000 in damage but only steal $100 of wire," he says. "The problem is a lot of the criminal statutes don't really account for that."