Copper supplies are being hit by mine disruptions but the market is still dominated by fears of falling global demand.

Copper mine supply has repeatedly fallen short of expectations in recent years as the industry has been plagued by all manner of disruptions. For much of last year, however, and certainly the first quarter of this year, such disruptions have been conspicuous by their absence, giving the copper market an unfamiliar feel.

At the same time, the new status quo of apparently solid mine supply growth and steadily rising concentrate availability seemed fragile and unsustainable for a market with such a poor track record.

So the market should not have been at all surprised to hear of last week’s pit wall failure at Rio Tinto’s Bingham Canyon mine in Utah. Likewise, it was true to form for the copper market that Rio’s latest update on the situation warned that the likely impact on production will be “worse than expected”.



Bingham Canyon copper mine before the slide



Bingham Canyon after the slide

Pictures courtesy of Kennecott Utah Copper

It is still too early for Rio to state how long the suspension of operations will last and how much output will be lost. Measures have been taken, but there is still an assessment to be made, the pit floor must be cleared, and remediation work is likely to be required too, so we may be looking at a four- to six-month hiatus and possibly a slow ramp-up back to first-quarter 2013 production levels.

Bingham Canyon was on Metal Bulletin Research’s list of disruptions last year, as low ore grades meant that mined production came in at just 163,000 tonnes of contained copper, well short of the mine’s capacity, which, in theory, is as much as 280,000 tpy.

With better grades expected this year, Metal Bulletin Research had pencilled in an output approaching 250,000 tonnes, which is in excess of 20,000 tpm. We are now looking at production losses on this scale for every month that operations are suspended.

The on-site refinery could, in theory, secure third-party concentrate, if the right grade can be found at the right price. And in a global concentrate market that is now a little looser, this is more of an option than it would have been during the tighter times of recent years. So the effect of Bingham’s outage on supplies of refined copper may actually be fairly limited.

This may be one reason why LME copper prices have not responded to the disruption news – this and the fact that the main area of concern in the broader market is about the weakness in demand, as evidenced by Monday’s sell-off in response to another batch of weaker-than-expected Chinese macroeconomic data.

Bingham Canyon is not the only mine disruption in the copper market to occur over the past month – the list is actually getting quite long – though most are likely to make only smallish dents in production figures:

• Palabora, Rio Tinto: Two weeks of production lost (2,000-2,500 tonnes) due to an illegal strike, but this could be recovered over the remainder of the year.
• Rudna, KGHM: Cave-in, but no major impact [use affect(vb) or effect(n)][use affect(vb) or effect(n)]on production reported.
• Yongping, Jiangxi Copper: Suspension after accident, but loss negligible as capacity is only 17,000 tpy.
• Radomiro Tomic, Codelco: Four days of production lost (4,500-4,800 tonnes) due to strike, but workers have agreed to work longer hours to make up the losses.
• Andina, Codelco: Tailings problem which contributed to output falling 12.3% year-on-year to 17,300 tonnes in February, but remediation work is in progress.
• Collahuasi, Xstrata/Anglo: Still struggling to overcome operational difficulties that dogged productivity last year, as output was reportedly down 1.4% in February, which at 20,600 tonnes amounts to an annualised 247,000 tpy versus annual capacity at nearly double this level.
• Chile: National one-day strike this month could have cost 14,800 tonnes in lost output, based on daily production rate.

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Andrew Cole
Senior base metals analyst, Metal Bulletin Research 
acole@metalbulletinresearch.com