Australian miners have called for copper and nickel to be included in the country’s critical minerals list to expedite project approvals and capitalize on historically high exploration spending and drilling activity.
Ahead of the release of the federal government’s updated critical minerals strategy, miners at the May 24 Australian Financial Review Mining Summit in Perth, Australia, made the case that any new list should include copper and nickel because of their importance to the energy transition, looming supply risks, and long lead times between discovery and production.
In 2022, Australian copper and nickel drilling activity hit record highs; copper exploration spending was its highest since 2012, and nickel exploration spending was its highest since 2013, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data.
S&P Global Commodity Insights projects global copper and nickel deficits of 177,000 metric tons and 73,000 metric tons, respectively, by 2027.
“Copper is a big market … everybody can see a shortfall coming and is not really sure how to plug that hole,” Luca Giacovazzi, CEO of Wyloo Metals Pty. Ltd., told the summit. And “nickel has quite a unique dynamic where it does have a big market in stainless steel, but then it’s got this other huge market” in electric vehicle batteries and renewable energy storage.
Wyloo Metals beat BHP Group Ltd. in a bidding war for Noront Resources Ltd. to get hold of the high-grade Eagle’s Nest deposit, which hosts nickel, copper, platinum and palladium, in northern Ontario.
Drawing needed attention
Australia’s Department of Industry, Science and Resources is set to release an updated critical minerals strategy in the coming weeks, Minister for Resources Madeleine King said May 22. “A decision on the timing of an updated critical minerals list is a matter for the Minister,” a department spokesperson told S&P Global Commodity Insights.
Geoscience Australia defines a critical mineral as an element that is “essential for the functioning of our modern technologies, economies or national security” and has risks of supply chain disruptions.
Tania Constable, CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia, said copper’s omission from the list shows “a lack of understanding about the importance of copper as a fundamental mineral for modern-day life” due to its use in electronic componentry, the electricity grid as a whole, along with electric vehicles and energy storage.
André Labuschagne, executive chairman of Aeris Resources Ltd., said including copper and nickel would help attract the strong government attention that is already being given to the likes of lithium and rare earths projects.
“I can think of about five or six development projects in copper sitting around Australia which have not been moved for 10 years, some because they have not received approvals, some are about funding and off-takes, but if it’s on that list it gets the attention it needs,” Labuschagne told Commodity Insights.
Lists under debate
The Minerals Council argued that copper faces a structural supply deficit given the large capital investment needed and time taken to develop new mines.
“From discovery to production, a nickel mine takes on average 12 to almost 20 years depending on whether it’s sulfide or laterite, respectively, and a copper mine takes about 16 years,” the group said in February comments to the federal government. “While the risk of a supply disruption for copper is currently extremely low, the supply risk is medium to longer-term. If there is a supply shortfall, prices will rise rapidly and progress on decarbonizing economies will slow and put at risk the world achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.”
The US Geological Survey added nickel to its critical minerals list in 2022 but has so far rejected calls to add copper. The next update is not due until 2025, but bipartisan lawmakers have pushed the body to add it immediately.
The Copper Development Association Inc. said May 22 that USGS notified the lawmakers that it would not add copper. “Continued supply trends and solid data confirm that the supply risk for copper is not a short-term issue that will self-correct without determined, immediate and strategic action,” Andrew Kireta, the group’s president and CEO, said in a press release.
The European Commission added copper and nickel to its proposed Critical Raw Material and Strategic Raw Material list in March, despite not meeting critical raw material thresholds.
Source: S&P Global