Demand for copper, an economic indicator in itself because of its widespread use in wiring and plumbing, is expected to vastly expand as the world transitions to greener energy to fight climate change. Miners are scrambling to develop projects.
Annual global supply of the red metal may surge 26% to 38.5 million tonnes by 2035 while still falling 1.7% short of demand, according to data released in April by the International Copper Association, an industry trade group.
The world’s leading copper projects by mine life, according to data compiled by Mining Intelligence, part of The Northern Miner Group, are led by two in the Far East. The third is in Chile. There are none in North America, Africa has four and unlikely Greece makes an appearance.
The Zabaikalye region of Russia, which holds the Udokan copper project, borders on Mongolia where Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO; LSE: RIO; ASX: RIO) leads the Oyu Tolgoi project.
Udokan Copper, part of the diversified USM Group owned by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, has the country’s largest non-producing copper deposit. But that should change within months if not weeks as the project tests machinery ahead of first production. According to Udokan’s website, the development dwarfs others on the list with its potential mine life of 70 years and a resource value of $178.6 billion, more than the other nine combined. (No economic studies have been released.)
The $2.8-billion project holds 26.7 million tonnes of copper in ore grading 1.1% copper, according to a resource estimate following Australia’s JORC mining code. From 12 million tonnes of ore a year it plans to produce 135,000 tonnes of 99.9% copper cathodes and 45% copper concentrate. It doesn’t say how much of each.
The deposit was discovered by geologist Elizaveta Burova in 1949 when Joseph Stalin still led the Soviet Union. Mines have been proposed for the site since the 1970s but only technological advances in recent years have propelled plans.
In second place, Rio Tinto’s $7-billion Oyu Tolgoi project in the Gobi Desert started underground output in March. Annual production is expected to be around 500,000 tonnes of copper from 2028 to 2036. The open pit has been in production since 2011.
Teck Resources (TSX: TECK.A/TECK.B; NYSE: TECK) started producing in March from its Quebrada Blanca 2 open-pit mine in northern Chile. Output is slated at 316,000 tonnes a year of copper in the mine’s first five years. Japan’s Sumitomo owns 30% of the project.
QB2 as it’s known, will double the company’s copper output. It incorporates many autonomous systems, which will include its entire fleet of haul trucks within five years. The mine will be controlled by a remote operations centre 1,700 km away in Santiago.
The project, estimated to cost as much as $7.8 billion, includes the mine at 4,400 metres above sea level, a concentrator, a desalination plant for water used in the concentrator, a pipeline for the concentrate and a new port on the Atlantic.
QB2 holds 1.4 billion proven and probable tonnes grading 0.5% copper and 0.2% molybdenum. There are also 3.6 billion measured and indicated tonnes, and 3.1 billion inferred tonnes. Over a 27-year life, the mine would use only 18% of the proven and probable reserves, the company said.
Eldorado Gold (TSX: ELD, NYSE: EGO) marks the midway point on our top 10 list with its Skouries gold-copper project in northern Greece.
Local opposition and delays obtaining permits for the proposed open-pit and underground mine halted development from 2017 to 2021. But in April, Eldorado secured €680 million ($1.1 billion) to help complete the project. It has reserves of 3.7 million oz. of gold and 1.7 billion lb. of copper and aims to produce 140,000 oz. of gold and 67 million lb. of copper a year for two decades.
Asmara, being developed by China’s Sichuan Road and Bridge Group in Eritrea leads the four projects in Africa on the list followed by Ivanhoe Mines’ (TSX: IVN; US-OTC: IVPAF) Kipushi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Al Hadeetha by Alara Resources (ASX: AUG) in Oman and Motheo by Sandfire Resources (ASX: SFR) in Botswana.
Information is scarce about the Asmara project in Eritrea, a country run for the last 30 years by President Isaias Afwerki. The project forecasts total revenue of $5.5 billion, China-run website Equal Ocean reported two years ago. The income estimate was based on a copper price of about $9,400 per tonne, gold at $1,780 per oz. and silver at $25.78 per ounce.
The open-pit project about 20 km from the capital sharing the same name would produce 65 million lb. copper, 184 million lb. zinc, 42,000 oz. gold and 1 million oz. silver during its first eight years, according to a 2013 feasibility study.