Miners face challenge tapping copper opportunities
The giant Chilean Escondida mine produces more copper than anywhere on earth. Some 1.2m tonnes emerge from the BHP Billiton-run facility each year.
For the largest miners, Escondida also serves as a key measure for world copper output.
To meet global demand over the next decade, the industry "will have to add the equivalent of a new Escondida every 15 months", says Jean-Sebastian Jacques, head of copper at Rio Tinto, which owns a minority stake in the mine. First Quantum, a mid-tier copper miner, says that if China, India and Brazil were to reach EU levels of copper use by 2020, it would imply nine new Escondidas.
Such predictions explain why big UK miners are talking up their growth potential in copper, even though worries over Chinese demand have driven the price of the metal to its lowest since 2010.
Both Rio and BHP believe the copper market is oversupplied now but will tighten from 2018, with growing deficits. "The copper story remains very strong," says Mike Henry, BHP's president for marketing.
Some of the UK's pure-play copper miners are investing heavily in growth. Antofagasta expects to lift annual output from its Chilean mines from 700,000 tonnes last year to 900,000 tonnes by 2018. Kaz Minerals is building two mines in Kazakhstan.
For BHP and Rio, copper is especially important now that investments in sectors such as iron ore and coal appear to be coming to an end. Iron ore is heavily linked to Chinese infrastructure construction that is expected eventually to tail off, and coal could be threatened by changing environmental rules. Demand for copper is expected to be steadier: it has a wide range of applications and is forecast to be widely needed as the world's largest economy shifts towards more consumer-led growth.
But the complexity and expense of projects means the larger miners may not be in a position to generate a quick acceleration of copper output.
Patrick Jones, an analyst at Nomura in London, says: "The major diversified miners all have sizeable copper businesses but they all have predicaments of one kind or another when it comes to their future growth options."
Escondida will suffer a dip in output in 2016 as BHP mines lower grade ores. Meanwhile Bingham Canyon, Rio's mine in Utah that has been producing copper for more than a century, will cut output this year amid rehabilitation work.
Oyu Tolgoi, the other copper mine operated by Rio, has brought more headaches. An expected underground phase of the mine has been delayed by a dispute with the Mongolian government. Rio wrote down the value of the project in 2013.
Rio took a step forward in December when Barack Obama, US president, signed legislation that paves the way to build Resolution, a US copper mine expected to be one of the world's largest. Rio owns 55 per cent of the project, with BHP owning 45 per cent.
Yet, obtaining all the permits for Resolution could easily take Rio another five to seven years. "There is much work ahead to complete the regulatory approval process," cautions Mr Jacques.
Because receiving approval for mines is so laborious, Rio and others have walked away from some projects, even if the copper resources involved are substantial. Since 2013 Rio and Anglo American have both given up on Pebble, a huge copper deposit in Alaska that is controversial for its potential effect on fisheries, for example.
Another challenge for miners is the expense involved in building mines. Glencore, the world's third largest copper miner by annual output and larger in copper than any of its diversified rivals, sold its Las Bambas project in 2014 to MMG, a subsidiary of China's Minmetals, for about US$7bn. MMG said in October that the remaining 25 per cent of construction would cost between US$2.7bn and US$3.2bn.
Those are the sort of sums that mining companies know shareholders dislike. Glencore is unwilling to build projects and most other miners are trying to find lower cost development routes. BHP, which owns Olympic Dam, an Australian mine, abandoned an expansion plan in 2012 because of the likely cost. The company is set to take several years to test an alternative, cheaper processing method. It is doing something similar at Spence, a smaller Chilean project.
"All the miners are keen on copper because they all see the market returning to deficit in a few years, but they are trying to be smarter about execution and capital efficiency," says Mr Jones. "Some of the miners are at a fork in the road: should they grow in copper and how can they do it smarter?"
Rio, which was scarred by failed acquisitions during mining's boom years, and BHP have said they are unlikely to pursue growth through acquisitions.
It was "very hard to think of the sort of M&A activity that would ever compete" with returns expected from copper projects already on BHP's books, Andrew Mackenzie, BHP's chief executive, said last month. "What we're showing today in copper, which was not always the case, is we have all the copper we want to grow."
(c) The Financial Times Limited 2015