Copper Mining in the United States

- February 2nd, 2021

Copper mining is a major industry in the US, with copper producers in the country supplying both domestic and global demand.

Copper mining in the United States has a centuries-long history, and today the nation is home to several prime copper-mining jurisdictions that continue to produce.

Copper is by far the most industrially important metal on the global stage, and American production of the metal goes a long way toward filling industrial demand for copper both at home and abroad.

Major copper-mining companies such Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO,ASX:RIO,LSE:RIO) and Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE:FCX) are investing billions of dollars to build out their US copper production capacity.

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What’s more, vehicle makers and battery manufacturers such as Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) and SK Innovation (KRX:096770) are opening new facilities and expanding existing operations in the country. According to Reuters, these facilities “are expected to consume a rising share of copper produced in the country.”

Here’s a brief look at the past and present of copper mining in the US, with a focus on the four regions that are currently most key for American copper production.

Copper mining in the United States: Production and reserves

Copper mining in the US dates back to the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that advances in flotation processes and open-pit mining opened the door to large-scale copper mining. Midway through the 20th century, the country was leading the world in copper production.

Today, the US is among the world’s five largest copper-producing countries. In the past few years, the country has seen a slight increase in its copper production due to higher ore grades and higher mining and milling rates at several of the nation’s copper mines.

According to the US Geological Survey, this increase in US copper production came at the same time as global copper production was declining. In 2019, the US produced 1.3 million metric tons of the red metal, an increase of 6 percent over the previous year, placing it in a tie with the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the position of fourth largest copper producer in the world.

The US also ranks among the top five exporters of copper into the global market, mainly in the form of ores and concentrates, but also as refined copper. China is a major importer of US copper, and the recent trade war between the two countries has had a significant impact on worldwide copper trade.

US copper reserves are the sixth largest in the world, estimated at 51 million metric tons. Impressively, the country’s copper reserves have increased 400 percent since 1952 on the back of new copper discoveries and further advancements in copper-mining techniques.

The nation’s richest copper-mining jurisdictions can be found the American Southwest. Arizona leads the region and the country in copper production, followed by New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. The states of Montana, Michigan and Missouri also make notable contributions to US copper mine production.

Fifteen of the mines in these seven states accounted for 99 percent of the country’s total copper mine production in 2019. Keep reading for a brief look at the top four US copper states.

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Copper mining in the United States: Arizona

As mentioned, Arizona is a leader in American copper production.

Copper giant Freeport-McMoRan holds five copper operations in the state, including the Morenci mine, one of the largest copper deposits in the country and in the world. Morenci is a porphyry copper deposit with both oxide and sulfide mineralization. A mill expansion completed in 2015 allows for annual production of up to 225 million pounds of copper.

Often called the Copper State, Arizona is on the verge of gaining another producing copper operation with the restart of the Gunnison mine. Excelsior Mining (TSX:MIN,OTCQX:EXMGF) is recommencing production at Gunnison, but has faced delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The copper company is targeting an annual production rate of 25 million pounds of copper, although the operation is permitted for up to 125 million pounds per year of copper cathode output.

Copper mining in the United States: New Mexico

In New Mexico, the red metal is mainly produced at the Tyrone and Chino copper mines, held by Freeport-McMoRan. Both are open-pit copper-mining complexes, with Tyrone being a porphyry deposit and Chino being a porphyry deposit with adjacent skarn deposits.

Tyrone’s copper-processing facilities consist of a solution extraction/electrowinning (SX/EW) operation with a maximum capacity of about 100 million pounds of copper per year. For its part, Chino’s mill has a 36,000 metric ton per day concentrator that produces copper and molybdenum concentrate, and a 150 million pound per year SX/EW plant that produces copper cathode.

Copper mining in the United States: Utah

Utah is home to one of the country’s biggest copper assets, the Bingham Canyon copper mine. The property is part of Rio Tinto’s Kennecott operations.

The mining giant recently committed to a US$1.5 billion investment aimed at prolonging the mine’s life to 2032. The investment will fund the further development of the orebody, resulting in production of close to 1 million tonnes of refined copper between 2026 and 2032.

Copper mining in the United States: Nevada

In Nevada, Poland-based KGHM (WSE:KGH) operates the Robinson mine. Mining operations at the historical asset were restarted by the company in 2004.

Now KGHM is working to extend production at the open-pit copper mine into 2028. In addition to copper, the mine also produces molybdenum, gold and silver. The US Geological Survey considers Robinson to be one of the largest porphyry-related mining operations in the world.

Yet the biggest copper operation in Nevada might be its newest. In December 2019, Nevada Copper’s (TSX:NCU) Pumpkin Hollow became the first new commercial copper mine in the state since Robinson. Pumpkin Hollow encompasses a high-grade underground mine and processing facility that is now in production, and a large-scale open-pit project that is fully permitted and advancing towards feasibility.

In addition to copper, Pumpkin Hollow also hosts significant precious metals credits.

This is an updated version of an article first published by the Investing News Network in 2010.

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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

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