Chilean copper mining industry is digging its own grave
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Chilean copper mining industry is digging its own grave

Experts say Chilean copper ores have peaked, triggering a scramble to maintain growth with a US$105 billion injection from the government over the next ten years. But risky mining investment may turn out to be a bad business move.

It is no secret that the Chilean economy hinges on copper mining and that robust growth in the last ten years has significant origins in productivity within this sector. The American Chamber of Commerce states that mining comprises 63.5 percent of Chile’s total exports, accounting for 8.5 percent of the country’s GDP.

With progressive legislation creating a healthy investment environment for foreigners, Chile has wielded the title of global leader in copper production for many years. However, with economic tides turning, Chile may be left with a serious case of having all its eggs in one basket.

Chile’s Minister of Mining Aurora Williams captured the country’s headstrong attitude in a statement following the announcement of the colossal investment last year claiming that “mining will always be the pillar of the Chilean economy.”

However, Chilean copper production is hugly reliant on China (which buys 32.6 percent of Chilean copper exports) and Japan (11.8 percent). With Chinese imports gradually decreasing — according to Chilean Copper Company COCHILCO — the country needs to consider how it is going to replace the gap left by its main client.

Even more troubling for the sector, Economía y Negocios reported that 20 percent of Chile’s mines will be closing down by 2025.

“A bad business decision”

Steven Hall, an energy consultant working out of Santiago, spoke with Latin Correspondent about the future of Chilean mining and the implications of chasing dropping ore-grades.

“For Chile, the demand for copper is uncertain. The copper industry— and La Moneda — is taking a huge business gamble. They’re investing this money assuming the demand for copper is going to be there and assuming the price of copper doesn’t continue to drop,” Hall said.

Investing in the expansion of old mines and construction of new ones holds no guarantee of boosting productivity and — more bad news for Chile — also crosses into another unstable area of Chilean infrastructure, the cost of energy.

“Copper demand is going down, energy demand is going down whilst energy prices are going up: it’s a huge business risk. The reason CEOs of companies and presidents are in the seats they’re in is to assess risk. If you see these dynamic figures, then you wouldn’t want to be a part of it,” Hall added.

According to Hall, Chilean copper extraction peaked in 2007, and has steadily declined since then.

“[This] means you need to drill deeper, increasing energy demands; you have to drill through harder rock, increasing energy demands; the copper that you get out has less density than before, which increases energy demand as well; and increases the need for electrowinning [electroextraction of metals] with more toxic chemicals and water being used to do this.”

Mining companies are responding to this increased demand for water by building more desalination plants — many in the desert, where most of Chile’s mines are located.

“These are also very energy intensive , requiring more coal plants and aggravating Chiles energy issues. It’s a downward spiral,” Hall said.

This increase in energy demand will make the cost of production higher — precisely at a time when the global price of copper is falling and Chile’s primary copper buyer is cutting back.

Renewable sources small, but growing

According to SNL Metals & Mining analyst Paul Dewison, there are some examples of renewable energy being used to power mines.

“There are a number of clean solar and wind projects in Chile, contributing relatively small amounts of electricity,” Dewison said.

Solar and hydro projects are either already running or proposed to help power production at mines like the Los Pelambres mine in the northern Antofagasta region. Hydro projects in particular, however, have faced continued resistance from local communities.

These alternative energy projects barely scratch the surface of the issue, however, considering that Chile’s Industry and Mining sector consumes a staggering 63 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Some see lithium mining as the solution to Chile’s failure to diversify its exports. However with the lion’s share of so-called “white gold” sitting in the tourism hotspot of the northern salt flats, it seems unlikely that the lithium triangle will reach the heights of the “Saudi Arabia of South America,” as some supporters call it.

China’s expansion

The next few years will be volatile for Chilean mining, and in turn the country. Not only because of China’s ebbing economy, but Beijing are also cutting out the middle man — seeking out their own copper mines in South America.

China Minmetals reached a US$5.8 billion deal last year for the purchase of Las Bambas, one of Peru’s largest copper mines, in one of the largest foreign acquisitions to date by a Chinese mining company.

When the mine starts operations this year, it is forecast to produce 450,000 tons of copper annually in the first five years. This production rate would make China Minmetals one of the world’s top producers of copper, bringing the competitiveness of Chilean copper into serious question and potentially leaving a huge hole in the nation’s economy.

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