Chile's Gold Riches: Worth Fighting Over

As the gold market continues its lustrous trend, the corporate elbowing and shoving to get at the richest buried treasures is getting increasingly cutthroat. A prime example involves northern Chile's clutch of mostly prolifically sized gold/copper deposits. Located in the Maricunga Gold Belt, five deposits are in various advanced stages of development while a trio of mines is already making money. All of them represent rich veins of opportunity for supply-hungry gold and copper producers.

Not surprisingly, much of the 100 million ounces-plus of gold concentrated within this rugged mountain range is firmly in the grip of the world's most dominant gold miner, Barrick Gold (TSX: ABX) (NYSE: ABX). But the high flyer's latest effort to consolidate its hold on this golden corridor has suffered a surprising setback.

Barrick was trumped by the world's fifth largest gold mining powerhouse, Goldcorp (TSX: G) (NYSE: GG) earlier this month in a deal to buy the El Morro deposit. This is where 6.7 million ounces of gold and 5.7 billion pounds of copper reserves have been outlined. The deposit is expected to be commercialized by 2015.

Worth over half a billion dollars, the transaction entails Goldcorp purchasing a 70% interest in the deposit from its previous majority owner, Xtrata Plc (LSE: XTA). Goldcorp will now team-up with the project's other original partner, New Gold (TSX: NGD (NYSE-AMEX: NGD), which retains its 30% stake and will be exempt from any further development costs. New Gold also got a $50 million pat on the back from Goldcorp for supporting its bid.

Still smarting from being outmaneuvered by a smaller rival, Barrick refuses to capitulate and has mounted a legal challenge to the deal. The gold industry's top dog is in an indignant mood after its own offer – which was comparable in dollar terms to Goldcorp's successful bid – had initially been accepted by Xtrata. Now the snubbed gold miner is contending that New Gold unlawfully transferred to Goldcorp its right of first refusal to commercialize the El Morro deposit.

The fact that the price of copper has more than doubled to over $3 a pound since the depths of its pronounced slump in early 2009 has also sweetened the appeal of El Morro – as well as several of the other deposits in the region that are also copper-rich.

In spite of the strenuous tug of war over El Morro, it is by no means the jewel in the crown of the Maricunga Gold Belt. That distinction to date belongs to the huge Cerro Casale deposit, which is jointly owned by Barrick and Kinross Gold (TSX: K) (NYSE: KGC). Cerro Casale is a huge prospective mine in-the-making that boasts a 23-million-ounce gold resource, along with six billion pounds of copper.

Its only rival in terms of size in the region is the nearby Caspiche gold/copper porphyry deposit, which weighs-in at 19.6 million gold ounces, 4.84 billion pounds of copper and 40 million silver ounces. And the deposit is still growing in size, according to its owner, a small Vancouver-based mining junior named Exeter Resource Corporation (TSX: XRC) (NYSE-A: XRA).

Exeter's management concedes that its resource estimate is still in the "inferred" category – meaning that more drilling is still required to definitively confirm the exact size of its gold and copper riches. Yet, the well-financed and increasingly confident company is hoping to do even better. It is drilling well outside of the known deposit, hoping to significantly expand its gold and copper resources. If this transpires, it would obviously give Caspiche bragging rights over Cerro Casale – at least in terms of size.

That said, Exeter is already looking ripe for a potentially lucrative deal with a big league gold miner (which helps to explain the company's recent proposal to spin off its other gold assets into a new publicly traded company). Notably, the announcement last September of a more than doubling of Caspiche's asset base over previous estimates didn't go unnoticed by the world's major mining companies. Exeter says a number of them are already assessing its mineral database for Caspiche.
So the power plays in the richly mineralized Maricunga Gold Belt seem to be far from over, especially against a backdrop of declining global gold output. Indeed, the scarcity of world-class gold discoveries in recent years is already taking a toll on the mining industry's bottom line.  Production has been dwindling by nearly 5% per annum since it peaked in 2001, even though bullion's spot price has more than tripled since then.

Hence, major gold mining companies are continually struggling to replace mined-out reserves. Especially their high-grade ore, much of which was severely depleted when gold was fetching much lower prices. This means that at least one new multi-million ounce deposit needs to come on-stream every year just to replace the major mining companies' annual output. But this has not been happening.

This problem has been compounded by the fact that only one headline-grabbing world-class gold discovery – the 13.7-millon-ounce Fruita del Norte deposit in Ecuador – has been made during gold's secular bull market over the past seven years. This is in spite of the fact that billions of exploration dollars have been spent by mining juniors, alone, on a worldwide basis during this time frame.

The Maricunga Gold Belt is also very attractive to major gold producers from a geopolitical perspective. Specifically, Chile is a politically stable democracy that has long been mining-friendly, especially since mining is essentially the backbone of its economy. Hence, Chile is very supportive of foreign investment and offers compelling business incentives to North American mining companies.

In stark contrast, several other Latin American nations, including Ecuador, have taken increasingly protectionist positions towards their gold assets – to the detriment of foreign mining companies that are active there. Furthermore, the advent of strict environmental laws in most global mineral hunting grounds promises to put any number of world-class gold prospects off-limits.

Disclaimer: Neither does Marc Davis nor anyone else at www.BNWnews.ca own shares directly or indirectly in any of the companies mentioned.

Marc Davis has been a business journalist for many years, during which time he has specialized in the mining sector. He has also worked in television and in newsprint for major news organizations internationally. Prior to his journalism career, he also worked in the stock market as a mining research analyst and as a floor trader. Marc also ran www.smallcapmedia for seven years, which is a news and commentary web site that covers junior mining stocks.