As the home of the world’s second largest reserves of copper, and the sixth largest producer of the red metal behind the US, Australia has dozens of productive copper mines.
Government data from 2019 shows there were 36 operational mines that year — though since then more have come online, and plenty more projects are in the exploration and development stages.
Some 960,000 tonnes of copper were produced in 2019 from those 36 operational mines, which are spread across most of Australia’s jurisdictions.
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The largest single copper mine in Australia is located in the nation’s premier copper jurisdiction: South Australia. The Olympic Dam polymetallic mine, owned by BHP (ASX:BHP,LSE:BHP,NYSE:BHP), produced about 171,000 tonnes of copper cathode in the 2019 to 2020 financial year.
While Olympic Dam is far from BHP’s largest copper mine, it sits upon the fourth largest copper deposit in the world and is the mine to beat in Australia as it also produces uranium and gold.
South Australia is home to another two operational mines, with one more coming online, and holds the lion’s share of Australia’s economic demonstrated reserves of copper, taking 66 percent of that pie; it’s followed by New South Wales (15 percent), Queensland (12 percent) and Western Australia (6 percent).
While South Australia has the most copper reserves, the state with the most mines is Queensland, where there are 13 operational mines. New South Wales has 10, while Western Australia has nine.
The jurisdiction home to the remaining operational mine is Tasmania, and there are developing copper projects in Victoria and the Northern Territory.
Besides Olympic Dam, Australia is home to Glencore’s (LSE:GLEN,OTC Pink:GLCNF) Mount Isa Mines complex in Queensland, where copper is produced from two operating mines: Enterprise and X41. Together they make Mount Isa Mines the second largest producer of copper in the country. Aside from Mount Isa Mines, Glencore also owns the nearby Ernest Henry mine.
Behind these assets, some of the copper mines sitting on larger reserves are Northparkes and Cadia East in New South Wales, owned by China Molybdenum (HKEX:3993,OTC Pink:CMCLF) and Newcrest Mining (ASX:NCM,OTC Pink:NCMGF), respectively, along with the Telfer mine in Western Australia, which is also owned by Newcrest Mining.
The remaining mines (of which there are many) sit on smaller reserves primarily in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia, but as mentioned, there are known copper deposits country-wide
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Copper exploration spending in 2018 was reported at AU$260 million by the Australian government — a 70 percent increase over 2017, when AU$155 million was spent on exploration. Spending is yet to return to the highs of 2012, when AU$414 million was spent.
Exploration and development is happening across Australia, with OZ Minerals (ASX:OZL,OTC Pink:OZMLF) bringing its Carapateena mine in South Australia online in the last 12 months, while mining major Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO,LSE:RIO,NYSE:RIO) has been busy drilling on its tenements in Western Australia, with the maiden resource at the Winu copper-gold project announced in mid-2020.
Winu is sitting on an inferred mineral resource of 503 million tonnes of ore at 0.43 percent copper equivalent, with the company envisaging a shallow open-pit mine to exploit the resources there.
Hammer Metals (ASX:HMX) is busy developing its Mount Isa project in Northwest Queensland, while Havilah Resources (ASX:HAV) in South Australia is spruiking its Kalkaroo project as the largest undeveloped open-pit copper discovery in the country, with the company reporting Kalkaroo contains some 1.1 million tonnes of copper.
There are also development projects happening in jurisdictions without active mines, such as the Bonya joint venture in the Northern Territory, shared between Arafura Resources (ASX:ARU,OTC Pink:ARAFF) and Thor Mining (LSE:THR,OTC Pink:THORF), as well as the Stavely copper-gold project in Western Victoria, which is being developed by Stavely Minerals (ASX:SVY).
The future for copper production in Australia remains bright through the next few years thanks to large investments in exploration and development, with production of copper forecast by the Australian government to sit above 1 million tonnes per annum in the near future.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Scott Tibballs, currently hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.