Miners' spending on hunt for copper, EV metals hits $10 billion

Exploration spending in the mining sector rose for a second year to near $10 billion as the industry makes a cautious shift to growth and prepares for forecast booming demand for copper and metals used in electric vehicle batteries, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Budgets jumped about 19%, outpacing last year’s gain, which had been the first for the industry – excluding some commodities such as iron ore and aluminum – since 2012, a S&P Global survey of more than 3,000 companies found. The value of exploration for cobalt and lithium, used in rechargeable batteries for EVs, jumped 82% in 2018

Key Insights

The value of exploration for cobalt and lithium, used in rechargeable batteries for EVs, jumped 82% in 2018, though spending remains a fraction of the amount deployed on gold or base metals. The number of companies and entities working on projects in 2018 rebounded to about 1,651 — the first rise in active exploration companies in six years.

Even so, the number is about a third less than in 2012. Equity market funding for explorers also remains constrained. Higher metals prices and improved margins since 2016 have spurred producers to expand exploration work, according to Mark Ferguson, S&P Global’s associate director of metals and mining research.

Spending on exploration and projects is a safer bet than major deals for miners as the sector pivots to growth, according to Aberdeen Standard Investments. Industry observers are poring over satellite images for clues about a Rio Tinto Group project to find copper in a remote patch of Western Australia. Rio is studying interesting targets and keeping deliberately silent about the results, according to CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques. “I don’t want my peers to know what I’m doing.” he said in August.