Copper Mining in the United States

- September 28th, 2010

Copper mining is a major industry in the United States. Copper producers in the US are supplying both domestic and global copper demand.

Copper mining in the United States is an important industry and the nation is home to several prime copper mining jurisdictions.

Copper is by far the most industrially important metal on the global stage. The United States’ production of the metal goes a long way in filling industrial demand for copper both at home and abroad.

On the home front, vehicle makers and battery manufacturers such as Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) and SK Innovation Co (KRX:096770) are opening new facilities and expanding existing operations across the country, according to Reuters which reported that these facilities “are expected to consume a rising share of copper produced in the country.”

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

Copper mining in the United States: Production and reserves

Copper mining in the United States dates back to the late 1800s. Later into the 20th century, advances in flotation processes and open-pit mining opened the door to large-scale copper mining. By mid-century, the country led the world in copper production.

Today, the United States is among the world’s five largest copper producing countries. In the past few years, the US has seen a slight increase in its copper production due to higher ore grades and higher mining and milling rates at several of the country’s copper mines. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), this increase in US copper production came at the same time as global copper production has been declining. In 2019, the US produced 1.3 million metric tonnes (MT) of the red metal, an increase of 6 percent over the previous year, to tie with the Democratic Republic of the Congo for world’s fourth largest copper producer.

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 the global copper trade.

US copper reserves are the sixth largest in the world, estimated at 51 million MT. The country’s copper reserves have increased 400 percent since 1952 on new copper discoveries in 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.

Copper mining in Arizona

In Arizona, US copper giant Freeport McMoRan holds five copper operations including the Morenci Mine, one of the largest copper deposits in the country and in the world. The Morenci mine is a porphyry copper deposit with both oxide and sulfide mineralization. The mill expansion completed ion 2015 allows for the 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’s (TSX:MIN, FSE:3XS) recommencement of production at Gunnison has faced delays related to the covid 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 production.

Copper mining in New Mexico

In New Mexico, the red metal is mainly produced at the Tyrone and Chino copper mines, both held by Freeport. Chino is an open-pit copper mining complex hosting a porphyry copper deposit with adjacent copper skarn deposits. The mill houses 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.

One of the most advanced copper projects in New Mexico is THEMAC Resource Group Ltd’s (TSXV:MAC) past-producing Copper Flat mine. The updated feasibility study on the property shows reserves of 675 million pounds of copper, 20 million pounds of molybdenum, 340 thousand ounces of gold and 6.8 million ounces of silver at an average copper equivalent grade of 0.39 percent.

Copper mining in Utah

Utah is home to one of the country’s biggest copper assets, the Bingham Canyon copper mine which 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 life to 2032. The investment will fund the further development of the ore body, resulting in close to one million tonnes of refined copper between 2026 and 2032.

Copper mining in Nevada

In Nevada, Poland based KGHM (WSE:KGH) operates the Robinson mine. Mining operations at the historical mine 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 USGS 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 production 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 which is fully permitted and advancing towards feasibility. In addition to substantial copper reserves and resources, Pumpkin Hollow also hosts significant precious metals credits.

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