Ivanhoe to build DRC’s second copper smelter amid government push for local processing

Ivanhoe Mines is considering construction of a new copper smelter to treat Kamoa Kakula copper concentrates following the recent push by the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to facilitate local processing of copper ore.

Ivanhoe - the developer of Kamoa Kakula, which is expected to be the world’s second-largest copper mine upon expansion - announced the updated development plan on its website on September 8.

The plan includes building a primary copper smelter with capacity to treat 1 million tonnes per year of copper concentrates, the company said. This roughly translates to 250,000 tpy of refined copper production. Construction of the new smelter will be complete by the fifth year of operation, which will start in 2021.

There is currently only one primary copper smelter in the DRC - Africa’s largest copper producer - which is China Nonferrous Mining Corp’s 120,000-tpy Lualaba smelter.

Since 2013, the DRC has tried to increase domestic refined metal output with restrictions on exports of copper concentrate to capture a greater portion of the mining value chain.

Ivanhoe’s plan to add a copper smelter in Kamoa Kakula comes after copper miners were told last month they could not renew their waivers to export copper concentrate from September onward, if they do not show the government their long-term commitment to process copper ore domestically.

“You cannot reach an agreement with the DRC government to build a mine this size without a ‘plan’ for a smelter. But in terms of investment return, you just want to avoid building the smelter for as long as possible. Better to smelter in China and mine in the DRC,” a source with an African mining company said.

Ivanhoe Mines and China’s Zijin Mining Group each own a 39.6% stake in the project, while the DRC government owns a 20% stake.

In a similar situation in Indonesia, Freeport-McMoRan agreed to construct a new copper smelter as part of a package to extend the mining rights in the country where it operates Grasberg copper mine to 2041.

The December-2023 timescale for completion of Freeport’s new smelter has been delayed due to Covid-19 related disruptions.

Fastmarkets’ copper concentrates treatment and refining charges are at a multi-year low level on lower spot availability. The index, tracking market activity of standard concentrates in Asia-Pacific, stood at $43.70 per tonne/4.37 cents per lb as of Friday, the lowest since price launch in 2013.

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