Flush with copper: the undiscovered billions of tons

Australia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and the US are vastly different countries but have one common element amongst them – they are flush with copper.

In fact, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) says of the identified copper that exists on Earth but is yet to be extracted from the ground, about 65% is found in these 5 countries alone.

According to the scientific agency, the 700 million metric tons of copper that has ever been produced equates to just 20% of the estimated resources of the soft, malleable metal still to be discovered.

The USGS says current identified deposits around the world contain an estimated 2.1 billion metric tons of additional copper to the 700 million tons already mined, meaning the total amount of discovered copper totals 2.8 billion metric tons.

Mind-blowingly, it is estimated that undiscovered copper resources amount to about 3.5 billion metric tons. This means collectively there is roughly 6.3 billion metric tons of the ductile metal on Earth.

To put that into perspective, the USGS says 244,000 metric tons of gold has ever been discovered to date. Most of the precious metal has been mined from just 3 countries – China, South Africa, and again, Australia.

Part of the reason significantly more copper is produced is due to its importance – it is a critical metal for the energy transition.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that in a scenario that meets the Paris Agreement goals, clean energy technologies’ share of total demand rises significantly over the next 2 decades to more than 40% for copper and rare earth elements, 60-70% for nickel, and cobalt, and almost 90% for lithium.

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 parties at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in France on 12 December 2015. It came into force on 4 November 2016. Its overarching goal is to hold ‘the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’ and pursue efforts ‘to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’.

As the world transitions towards decarbonisation and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, copper demand is at unprecedented levels. Research suggests by 2050, global will demand will be nearly twice the volumes of copper the world has produced over the previous 3,000 years.

The metal’s applications are wide and varied. It is used in various clean energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles (EVs), batteries, as well as hydrogen production. 

Avalon Global Research notes that an EV consumes around 4x (80kg/car) more copper than combustion cars (18-20kg/car), while a solar plant uses some 9,000 pounds of copper per MW of peak capacity. Similarly, wind farms require 5,600-14,900 pounds of copper per MW, while offshore wind farms require 21,000 pounds per MW.

S&P Global suggests current copper production capacity is only projected to increase by about 20% over the next decade. As such, new investments and discoveries of copper resources is urgently required.

These copper supply issues are exacerbated by declining resource quality. The IEA says concerns about resources are more about quality rather than quantity. In recent years, ore quality has continued to fall across a range of commodities. For copper, the average ore grade in Chile declined by 30% over the past 15 years. Extracting metal content from lower-grade ores requires more energy, exerting upward pressure on production costs, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste volumes.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. There’s a growing number of copper plays on the ASX, many of which are on a pathway towards production.

Junior explorer KGL Resources (ASX:KGL) recently said in its latest quarterly report the bullish outlook for copper prices and the essential need for more copper has allowed it to review optimisation for the mine plan of its for its Jervois Project in the Northern Territory.

At the time, KGL Executive Chairman Denis Wood said growing the organisation to deliver the Jervois Project while optimising the mining and process plant remains the highest priority for the company to enable a financial investment decision.

“Exploration continues to increase the confidence of the overall resource and confirm it to be a significant and robust development for the company. The market outlook for copper remains strong. These current market circumstances allow KGL to refine and further improve its plans.”

KGL has appointed Nicholas Spencer as its new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chris Dippenaar as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to drive the development of the Jervois Copper Project. These appointments have been made as the $73.74 million market capitalisation company progresses work on the optimisation studies for the project post Feasibility Study. 

True North Copper (ASX:TNC) in July 2023 began copper sulphate production at its Cloncurry Project in Queensland under an exclusive offtake agreement with Kanins International. 

At the time, Managing Director Marty Costello said: “We believe our offtake agreement with Kanins International provides confidence in True North Copper’s revenue generation. The agreement ensures a premium above the London Metal Exchange price for our high-quality copper sulphate, providing a stable and predictable revenue stream. 

This is another milestone completed that forms part of our overarching strategy to become Australia’s next critical minerals producer of copper and cobalt as we finalise restart studies for full-scale production

This is another milestone completed that forms part of our overarching strategy to become Australia’s next critical minerals producer of copper and cobalt as we finalise restart studies for full-scale production.”

On 20 September 2023 True North received assay results that confirm its Vero resource in Mount Isa, Queensland, hosts ‘large-scale’ and ‘high-grade’ copper-cobalt-silver (Cu-Co-Ag) mineralisation. 

Another emerging copper company is Argonaut Resources (ASX:ARE), which has a diversified portfolio that includes the Torrens joint venture with Aeris Resources. The Torrens JV is exploring for Iron Oxide Copper‐Gold (IOCG) systems in the highly prospective Stuart Shelf region of South Australia. The project is situated 75km from BHP’s (ASX:BHP) Olympic Dam mine, within 50km of OZ Mineral’s (ASX:OZL) Carrapateena mine, and only 40km from BHP’s recent Oak Dam West copper discovery.

Meanwhile, In June 2023, Cazaly Resources (ASX:CAZ) received positive Scoping Study results from AuKing Mining’s Koongie Park copper-zinc project which included mineralisation from the company’s 100%-owned Halls Creek and Bommie copper deposits.

In late 2022, Cazaly executed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with AuKing to include the Halls Creek project into the study. The AuKing study confirms the potential for a financially robust, globally competitive operation with life-of-mine of 11 years with an estimated total production of 110,000t Cu, 38,000t Zn and 355,000oz Ag.

Cohiba Minerals (ASX:CHK) holds a strategic tenement package in the ‘world-class’ Gawler Craton comprising 8 exploration licences covering 831km-square in the Horse Well (Pernatty B), Pernatty C, and Andamooka-Peninsula (Lake Torrens) areas.

In August, CEO Andrew Graham reiterated that Cohiba’s Olympic Domain projects in South Australia remain key priorities and has generated some third party interest.

“We have completed a review of the Olympic Domain projects and identified additional strategic drill hole sites. We have also had numerous discussions in relation to direct investment into the Wee MacGregor copper project in Queensland and are working towards securing an outcome. We have further incentivised this investment opportunity by securing an extension on ML90098, a key Mining Lease at Wee MacGregor, until 31 December 2034.”

Castillo Copper (ASX:CCZ) has 4 properties comprising the NWQ Copper Project in Mt Isa’s copper-belt, the BHA Project near Broken Hill’s ‘world-class’ silver-zinc-lead deposit in NSW, the historic Cangai Copper Mine, and assets across Zambia’s copper-belt.

In July, Castillo produced an updated 2012 JORC-compliant Mineral Resource Estimate (MRE) for its Cangai Copper Mine in New South Wales, Australia. 

At the time, Chairman Ged Hall said having a high-grade MRE for circa 114,000 tonnes copper metal plus significant exploration potential was an excellent value-add outcome.

“Moreover, when reconciling Cangai Copper Mine’s favourable fundamentals with long-term global demand trends for copper, the board believes it has a compelling business case to leverage and align with a strategic development partner

“Moreover, when reconciling Cangai Copper Mine’s favourable fundamentals with long-term global demand trends for copper, the board believes it has a compelling business case to leverage and align with a strategic development partner.”

Kincora Copper (ASX:KCC) is an active explorer and project generator focused on world-class copper-gold discoveries. Kincora’s portfolio includes district scale landholdings and scale-able drill ready targets in both Australia and Mongolia’s leading porphyry belts, the Macquarie Arc, and Southern Gobi respectively.

In July, Kincora signed a conditional agreement to acquire RareX’s (ASX:REE) 35% interest in the Trundle, Fairholme, Jemalong, Cundumbul, and Condobolin projects in New South Wales. Under the agreement, Kincora will issue 40 million chess depositary interests (CDIs) and will grant RareX a 1% net smelter royalty (NSR) for the vended licences.

Great Western Exploration (ASX:GTE) is a copper, gold, and nickel explorer with a large land position in prolific regions of Western Australia. Great Western’s tenements have been underexplored or virtually unexplored. 

Write to Adam Orlando at Mining.com.au

Images: True North Copper
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Written By Adam Orlando
Mining.com.au Managing Editor Adam Orlando has more than 20 years’ experience in the media having held senior roles at various publications, including as Asia-Pacific Sector Head (Mining) at global newswire Acuris (formerly Mergermarket). Adam has worked in newsrooms around the world including Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and Sydney.