Coronavirus may prevent Codelco from re-gaining world’s top copper miner spot

Drop in copper prices has put some upgrade projects for aging mines at risk. (Image courtesy of Codelco via Flickr.)

Chile’s copper miner Codelco may not regain its position as the world’s top producer of the red metal this year, as delays in upgrades and expansion projects caused by measures to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus add to the impact of low prices and lack of funding.

The miner, which hands all its revenue over to the state, was in the midst of implementing a $40 billion, 10-year modernization of its mines, aimed at maintaining output despite rapidly falling ore grades.

A sustained drop in copper prices — down 22% so far this year — and the lack of readily available government funding while the country deals with ongoing unrest, has however cast doubts on Codelco’s ability to keep up production rates.

The impact of the current pandemic will negatively tip the scale, experts say

Colin Hamilton, managing director of commodities research at BMO Capital Markets, anticipates the miner will have to sell non-core assets.

“Any thoughts of shutting unprofitable operations, however, are off the agenda for now given the need to ensure employment,” he notes.

The analyst also sees potential delays at the key El Teniente mine’s new level, which was expected to boost mine’s production to 500,000 tonnes a year, and would position it among the world’s five largest copper operations.

“While operationally the company continues to surprise on the upside, Codelco is looking increasingly unlikely to be the world’s largest copper miner from this year forward, as depletion and restrictions prove to be headwinds that are too strong,” Hamilton says, adding that the impact of the current pandemic will negatively tip the scale.

Suspended projects

The copper giant said in a statement published late on Wednesday it had decided to temporarily halt construction on some projects in an effort to slow down the spread of coronavirus.

The 15-day suspension, the company said, applies to work being carried out to transform Chuquicamata into an underground mine, and early stage projects at Rajo Inca and Traspaso Andina.

The measure is not expected to impact production of the respective divisions, which remain in operations with the greatest possible sanitary safeguards, Codelco said.

With the electoral calendar likely being pushed back into the last quarter of the year — including April’s highly-anticipated constitutional referendum — and bleak prospects for short-term economic recovery, Chile’s position as a leading investment destination will face yet another critical test, says Mariano Pablo Machado, senior Americas analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

Codelco is pushing a 10-year, $40 billion plan to boost output as falling ore grades have put a dent in production.  (Taken from Codelco’s presentation May 2019.)

Although the country’s government has taken proactive measures to contain the economic and health impacts of the covid-19, the ripple effects of a copper supply shock remain to be seen, Machado says.

“Disruption in mining will cascade throughout the scarcely diversified economy and it can have a long-lasting impact if the state’s policies fail to deliver the intended stimulus,” the expert says.

According to BMO’s figures, the implications of the current quarantine-led restrictions in top copper producing nations, particularly in Chile and Peru, remain manageable.

“If we take total Chilean and Peruvian production of ~8mtpa copper contained, the current two-week quarantine would affect ~310kt of copper,” Hamilton estimates.

“Currently, we are taking these losses within our disruption allowance, which at 1.4mt is roughly 50% higher than we would run in a ‘normal’ year, to account for the risk to supply chains this year.”

Codelco operates seven mines and four smelters, all in Chile. Its assets account for 10% of the world’s known proven and probable reserves and about 11% of the global annual copper output, with 1.8 million tonnes of production.

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