China’s coming for your copper project

The 400,000tpa Las Bambas mine made its first shipment in January 2016. Image: MMG

While global copper production was up 3.5% in 2015, Chinese output declined.

At 1.66 million tonnes, China’s mine production accounts for 8.7% of global supply of just over 19 million tonnes last year. That contrasts with Chinese demand for the metal which is expected to grow to 46% of worldwide copper consumption by 2018.

China is the world’s number two producer but is likely to be overtaken by Peru in the near future after the South American country’s output surged 28% last year.

Peru’s production is set to jump again this year and next as projects come on stream led by the giant Las Bambas mine which made its first shipment in January.

Las Bambas, a project started over a decade ago by Xstrata, is majority owned by China’s Minmetals with two other Chinese conglomerates holding the remaining 37%.

“We all know there are not many Las Bambas out there, it’s not easy to develop a huge mine”

Chinese authorities carefully engineered the 2014 acquisition of Las Bambas over a period of two years, by making its approval of the Glencore-Xstrata merger dependent on the Swiss-based company’s disposal of the project.

Las Bambas was likely just the curtain raiser for many future Chinese forays outside the country in search of copper sources. Chinalco’s 75,000 tpa Toromocho expansion also in Peru, Guangdong Rising’s new 50,000 tpa Inca de Oro (Chile) and 125,000tpa Frieda River (PNG) projects are others.

“We all know there are not many Las Bambas out there, it’s not easy to develop a huge mine,” Jerry Jiao, vice-president of China Minmetals, told the World Copper Conference in Santiago reports the FT:

“China is very short of copper resources. The only way to have a stable supply of copper resources … going overseas is the only solution.”

How Beijing landed copper’s flagship project

Glencore and Xstrata first announced a merger February 2012 and after much shareholder wrangling and jumping through regulatory hoops China was the last country to approve the deal – a full 14 months later.

There was one, pretty specific, proviso.

Glencore must give up Las Bambas. Or something of equivalent significance for future global copper supply (nothing springs to mind).

The Swiss-based firm had already lavished $4 billion on the Peruvian mine and China took its sweet time to ink a deal.

While negotiations of the sale dragged on for another year Las Bambas was being thoroughly de-risked (compared to the likes of a Conga or Oyu Tolgoi, it appears to have been smooth-sailing) and readied for production by one of the more experienced teams in the global copper mining game.

At the same time the copper price was sliding to a near four-year low, strengthening China’s hand in the final month of talks before the consortium led by Minmetals finally came to a $6 billion agreement.

Both sides walked away satisfied, at least according to Glencore CEO Ivan Glasenberg.

Las Bambas, which is operated by Melbourne-based MMG, is set to become the world’s third largest copper mine boasting peak capacity of 400,000 tonnes of copper (and not insubstantial quantities of molybdenum, gold and silver).