Operator Series: BHP's copper assets in Latin America

By
Thursday, December 7, 2017

Australian resources giant BHP operates several copper mines in Latin America. In Chile, the company operates Escondida and Pampa Norte, comprising the Spence and Cerro Colorado mines.

In Peru, the company has a 33.75% stake in Antamina, a copper-zinc mine in the north of the country.

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Outside copper, in Colombia BHP owns 33.3% of coal miner Cerrejón, and in Brazil it owns 50% of the suspended Samarco iron ore pellet operation.

BHP produced 404,100t of copper in the quarter ending in September, up from 354,600t in the same period last year. The figure also includes production from its Olympic Dam mine in Australia.

Melbourne-based BHP has pinned its hopes on the copper industry, and is confident on the long-term prospects of the red metal. At the end of its 2017 financial year, ended June 30, BHP's copper portfolio is comprised 79 projects covering 1.8Mha, according to BHP Minerals Americas' chief Daniel Malchuk.

ASSETS REVIEW

Escondida

BHP operates what is the world's largest copper mine with a 57.5% share, in partnership with Rio Tinto (30%) and two Mitsubishi-led consortiums (12.5%).

At Escondida (pictured in side photo), output in the September quarter on a 100%-basis was 196,300t of copper in concentrates and 71,900t of in cathodes compared to 147,000t and 70,500t, respectively, in the year-ago period.

After investing more than US$10bn in different projects at the mine in recent years, including a new concentrator and revamping of an existing one, a power plant and a desalination plant, the company is in the process of capitalizing those investments that are aimed at prolonging the mine's life, Malchuk told reporters earlier this year.

The completion of the revamping of the Los Colorados concentrator in the September gave Escondida the capacity to operate three concentrators simultaneously, which together with the 2,500l/s new desalination plant will allow the mine to maintain production at approximately 1.2Mt/y through 2025.

Pampa Norte

BHP's 100%-owned Pampa Norte comprises the Spence and Cerro Colorado mines, which like Escondida are in northern Chile. Combined production was down 6.6% to 58,000t of copper in cathodes in the September quarter.

In the case of Cerro Colorado, BHP is said to be in the process of selling the asset. Production in the quarter was down to 13,300t from 17,100t a year earlier. At Spence, production was 44,700t from 45,000t a year earlier.

Unlike Cerro Colorado, the company has made Spence its next target to sustain production for the next 50 years.

In August the company's board gave the green light for the Spence Growth Option project (SGO), valued at US$2.46bn. The project involves mining the sulfide-rich orebody below the existing oxide reserves, which are currently in the depletion phase.

The project entails a 95,000t/d concentrator and a new 1,000l/s desalination plant. The contracts were awarded earlier this year, with the concentrator plant project going to a consortium of Salfa and Fluor, while the desalination plant contract was won by a JV between Japan's Mitsui and Spain's Tedagua, a unit of Grupo ACS.

A third contract, the Vertical Work Package No. 1 (VWP1) EPC contract, was awarded to a 50:50 JV comprising Peru's Graña y Montero and the UK's Amec Foster Wheeler for the construction and assembly of a crushing plant and other facilities.

Once SGO is operational, Spence will increase its production capacity by approximately 200,000t/y. The project is targeted for completion in financial year 2021, while the current cathode stream will continue until FY2025.

Operations at Spence (Credit: BHP)

Antamina

BHP owns Antamina in partnership with Glencore and Teck. Antamina is a low-cost copper-zinc mine in north-central Peru that produced 245,000t of copper in fiscal 2017.

Production in the September quarter was 35,900t from 34,100t in the year-ago period, while zinc output grew 90% to 29,201t.

The mine's plan is currently focused on the zinc-rich deposits, and as such for FY2018 copper production is expected to fall to 125,000t, while zinc output is projected to increase to 100,000t from 88,000t.

The Antamina mine (Credit: Antamina)

EXPLORATION

BHP said in its most recent annual report that while the world has abundant potential resources, these are increasingly difficult to find, at the same time as demand is projected to increase. The company's exploration strategy is focused on copper and petroleum.

In copper exploration, BHP's eyes are set on Chile, Peru, Ecuador, North America and Australia, where the company is focused "on the search for large, high-quality copper deposits."

The company says it also remains open to other jurisdictions and opportunities to partner with third parties "to counter the increasing exploration maturity of our existing geographies."

In Chile, Peru and North America exploration is focused on identifying and testing targets, while in the case of Ecuador the company was awarded in its last fiscal year five concessions through an auction process. Additional applications have also been submitted and BHP is in the process of establishing itself formally in the country.

BHP's mineral exploration budget is sizable, at US$163mn in its fiscal 2017, down from US$175mn the previous year. Of that total, brownfield exploration accounts for US$120mn, and greenfield exploration for the remaining US$43mn.

In the September quarter, mineral exploration expenditures were US$43mn, of which US$32mn was expensed.

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