In 2019, 960,000 metric tons of the red metal came from Australian mines. The country is home to the world’s fourth largest copper-producing mine, Olympic Dam.
Despite its reputation as a major source of coal, iron ore, gold and uranium, Australia is also one of the premier copper-producing jurisdictions in the world, coming in at sixth in production behind the US — or fifth, or seventh — depending on who you ask and on what year.
In 2019, 960,000 metric tons of the red metal came from Australian mines. Notably, the country is home to the world’s fourth largest copper-producing mine, Olympic Dam.
While Australia’s rank in production can jump around, US Geological Survey data ranks Australia as second behind Chile when it comes to economic reserves.
Where to find copper in Australia
There are actively producing copper-focused mines in four Australian jurisdictions: Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, while exploration and development is being carried out in a fifth jurisdiction, Victoria. There are known deposits across every jurisdiction, however.
It’s worth noting that Australia has copper-smelting capacity too, exporting not just copper ores but also copper anodes to major markets overseas.
The lion’s share of all copper produced in Australia heads to Asia, where ravenous markets gobbled up $8.8 billion worth of copper trade in 2018; of that amount, almost half ($3.9 billion) went straight to China — Australia’s largest trade partner. The second largest share went to Japan, whose high-tech industries accounted for $1.7 billion of Australia’s copper sold in 2018.
While modern Australia is built on gold, iron and coal, copper mining has been happening in the land down under since the time of the major gold rushes in the 1800s. South Australia — the site of the Olympic Dam polymetallic mine — was known as the “copper kingdom” as far back as the 1860s because it was home to so many large gold mines even then.
Indeed, the first major discoveries of copper in Australia were in South Australia near early settlement sites and along the coast near Adelaide and up to the Yorke Peninsula.
Today, South Australia remains the nexus of copper production in the country, with the state accounting for some 66 percent of all economic demonstrated reserves of copper in Australia — a number that comes in at 88.17 million tonnes, according to government data from 2018.
South Australia is followed by New South Wales (15 percent), Queensland (12 percent) and Western Australia (6 percent). The remaining jurisdictions have minor shares of the copper pie.
There are currently 37 operating copper mines in the whole of Australia, and surprisingly South Australia only holds four of them, though they count among them the largest.
Of the remainder, 13 are in Queensland, 10 are in New South Wales, nine are in Western Australia and the last is in Tasmania — though the Tasmanian mine is a polymetallic mine focused on zinc and lead.
Copper companies in Australia
Looking at the mines and the players focused on copper in Australia reveals a mostly Australia-focused role call of operators, but with plenty of international players as well.
The largest operating mine is, as mentioned, the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia, owned and operated by mining giant BHP (ASX:BHP,NYSE:BHP,LSE:BHP). The massive mine produced some 171,000 tonnes of copper cathode in the year ended June 30, 2020. That same mine also accounts for South Australia’s dominance of uranium production in Australia.
Only another three mines are now operating in the state: Prominent Hill and Carapateena, operated by the Australian company OZ Minerals (ASX:OZL,OTC Pink:OZMLF), and Kanmantoo, operated by another Australian company, Hillgrove Resources (ASX:HGO). Still, the state is teeming with copper deposits.
Coming in behind BHP for copper production is the global giant Glencore (LSE:GLEN,OTC Pink:GLFNF), which owns Mount Isa Mines in Queensland — the second largest producer in the country. Glencore also owns Ernest Henry Mines, another copper producer in the Sunshine state.
Looking elsewhere in Australia, companies that make appearances are China’s MMG (HKEX:1208), American company Newmont (TSX:NGT), Australia’s Newcrest Mining (ASX:NCM,OTC Pink:NCMGF), Stavely Minerals (ASX:SVY) and Metals X (ASX:MLX,OTC Pink:MLXEF). Aside from those larger companies, there are plenty of small-time operators spread around the country.
Given the bright future that the red metal has in the age of technology and electrification, copper remains front of mind in Australia’s export plans, with production and revenue expected to rise modestly over coming years, mainly fuelled by increasing output from existing mines — however, there are plenty of copper deposits and exploration projects in the works.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Scott Tibballs, currently hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.