CESCO – INTERVIEW: Lessons from commodity downturn still fresh in mind, Anglo American says

An environment of improved copper prices is unlikely to lead to the irrational exuberance of the previous commodities bull run, with harsh lessons learned and still at the forefront of minds, the head of Anglo American’s copper business said.

Speaking in an interview during the annual Cesco industry week in Santiago, Chile, Hennie Faul said that this more restrained attitude by miners is more likely to feed into the lack of new projects that is currently constraining future supply growth.

“I think the corporate memory is still fresh in everyone’s minds – lessons were learned. The prudence is still there; certainly in Anglo American Copper, our teams are totally focused on taking further costs out of the business,” Faul told Metal Bulletin. “I think the rest of the industry has got that focus too still.

“There hasn’t been any major change of chief executive officers so the ‘growth-at-all-cost’ approach that created the bubble is a long way behind us. If anything, a more cautious approach is going to the part of the problem of finding enough supply to come into the market,” he said.

The decline in copper prices during the global financial crisis of 2008-09 led to the postponement or downsizing of projects, which has in turn created a very thin pipeline of projects due on-stream in the coming years.

“Those projects that came through and didn’t shut down [due to productivity improvements and cost cutting efforts] made themselves more sustainable,” Faul said.

“We still have quite a prudent approach,” he added.

Fundamentals
The copper market is getting close to a supply-demand deficit in the short term, Faul said. The current imposition of tariffs on goods sent between China and the United States is causing some jitters and leading copper prices to fluctuate slightly “but the fundamentals are there for copper,” he noted.

“China’s fiscal process that it put in place and stuck by for the last two years has actually been quite impressive. The country surprised everybody. That has dampened copper growth slightly but it’s still good growth,” he told Metal Bulletin.

Copper’s growing role in the electrification of global mobility and a focus on decarbonization is also adding momentum to demand growth, he noted, although copper’s use in electric vehicles is “not a game-changer” for the metal.

“Whether you go low-, medium- or high-demand growth scenarios for electric vehicles, it’s all solid to the fundamentals of copper. There’s also the infrastructure, all the charging stations. The market still has strong demand growth from air conditioners, cabling and housing but it’s focused on more energy efficiency and this is where copper comes to the fore – it’s just so much more energy-efficient and underpins the fundamentals for copper,” he added.

For its part, Anglo American is focusing on smart mining, where technology can play a game-changing role in improving efficiency. This is not just in mining but also in exploration, geology, processing, logistics and marketing, Faul noted, with a push to use technology including automation and artificial intelligence.

The company has already applied artificial intelligence at its Los Bronces mine in Chile so that equipment knows when it needs to shut down and restart.

“We saved 4.6% on energy at Los Bronces in 2017 by more effective use of artificial intelligence,” Faul said.

“We have made ourselves uncomfortable by setting ourselves quite ambitious targets in our sustainability report but we believe these are tangible and we have committed to those ambitious goals. But that will also give us other benefits, including saving on energy, lower emissions and lower costs,” he added.