Copper Theft Rising Alongside Stronger Copper Prices

- June 9th, 2021

With copper prices on the rise, theft of the red metal is increasing. Some nations are looking to crack down on the culprits.

Copper prices have reached all-time highs in 2021, and the red metal’s positive price action is fueling black market demand for copper scrap.

Copper theft has long been a major source of anxiety, particularly for the construction, utilities and transportation industries, and legislators are still attempting to stop property vandalism.

While stealing copper might sound difficult, it’s quite common and can affect major entities. In fact, copper thieves made off with US$500,000 in copper wiring from a stretch of the Manhattan subway line in New York in late 2020.

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In early 2021, Florida police arrested five men stealing underground copper wiring belonging to media and telecommunications giant AT&T (NYSE:T). The copper wire had a value of US$30,000, but the damages incurred from the vandalism were estimated at US$100,000.

With electric vehicles (EVs) requiring upwards of 80 percent more copper than gasoline-powered vehicles, EV manufacturers are also a lucrative target for copper theft.

In mid-2021, BNN Bloomberg reported that tens of millions of dollars in copper have been stolen from Tesla’s (NASDAQ:TSLA) gigafactory in Nevada.

Each US state has its own metal recycling regulations and anti-copper theft laws, with varying degrees of stringency. The rise in copper theft lately has led to new legislation. For example, Oklahoma state legislature recently passed a bill aimed at strengthening existing laws designed to curtail metal thefts.

“Scrap metal theft is a huge problem in our state, particularly copper wire theft,” said Oklahoma Senator Chuck Hall. “This is a comprehensive approach to make sure all the relevant laws are in one place in the statutes and that any duplicate language is eliminated, making it easier for scrap metal dealers and other buyers to see exactly what is required to comply. It tightens the requirements for seller identification and adds remote storage batteries to the list of regulated materials.”

Copper theft is not isolated to the US, but rather is a global problem. In Canada, the provincial government of Saskatchewan also recently passed legislation targeting scrap metal thefts.

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“Police services, farmers, and businesses in Saskatchewan have told us about the dangerous growth of metal theft,” said Justice Minister Gordon Wyant. “This legislation will serve as a valuable tool for police when working to reduce this type of crime, which is often specifically targeted at rural property owners.”

SaskPower, the principal electric utility in the province, fired three of its employees in December 2020 for stealing scrap copper from the company. The utility has also reported electrical substations as targets of copper theft in recent years.

In Brazil, transit authorities have reported millions of dollars in vandalism and theft from traffic lights in the past few years, while power distributor Cemig has said theft of copper cables is on the rise, resulting in supply interruptions for energy, traffic disruptions and issues for telecommunications networks.

Reuters reported recently that copper thefts attributed to organized crime have hobbled South Africa’s commuter rail system — the longest railway system on the continent. “We’ve never seen the rail system in this state. It’s diabolical,” said Steve Harris, secretary general of the United National Transport Union.

The government of South Africa isn’t taking copper theft lightly. In May 2021, under amended legislation, five copper thieves were handed a cumulative 1,250 year sentence for stealing copper cables.

Whether or not tougher laws will have an impact on copper theft remains to be seen. For now, as long as copper is trading at a high price, the red metal remains alluring to those in the black market even as lawmakers worldwide try to crack down on the trade.

This is an updated version of an article first published by the Investing News Network in 2012.

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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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