International miners set their sights on B.C. copper

Large overseas companies are competing for resource deposits as growth forecasts heat up

Despite the scale of copper extraction at Teck Resources’ Highland Valley mine in B.C., the full extent of copper deposits in the area remains largely unexplored | Steve Smith/Shutterstock

Chinese mining giants are raising their investment in the B.C. market as copper continues to build appeal as a prospective asset.

Electrification of cities and transportation and forecasts of market growth over the next five years have spurred increasing interest in B.C. copper projects.

With few mines coming online globally and supply hard to come by, international companies are buying or taking stakes in B.C. operations.

Earlier this year, China’s state-backed Zijin Mining bid $1.86 billion for Canadian gold and copper miner Nevsun Resources (TSX: NSU).

The bid, which beat out an earlier hostile bid from Lundin Mining (TSX:LUN), is the latest effort from Zijin to expand overseas.

Zijin has been building globally over the last few years, purchasing copper assets in Africa and Australia. Recently, the company spent US$1.26 billion for 63% in Serbia’s largest copper mining and smelting company, RTB Bor.

Additionally, Chinese state-run conglomerate CITIC purchased a 20% stake in Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines (TSX:IVN) for $723 million. The deal, which was announced in June, has received the necessary approvals from regulatory agencies in China and is expected to close on September 19, according to a statement from the companies.

“The demand for copper is certainly growing,” said Lawrence Roulston, managing director at Westbay Capital Advisors. “The whole thing about electric vehicles is almost a red herring in that it is not a significant part of the overall market but it is just one more element in the ongoing growth in the consumption of copper.

“At the same time, supplies are constrained, it is getting harder to find new deposits and there has been a big gap in the supplied pipeline. For about five years, there was underspending in exploration.”

That underspending is now being offset by companies hungry for B.C. copper.

“There are a lot of smaller companies here [in B.C.] that have the potential for very large copper deposits,” Roulston said.

Asian interest in Canadian mining has heated up before.

“There was a bunch of Chinese interest 10 years ago, then it got quiet as the entire copper market got quiet but we have certainly seen it pick up here again,” said Paul West-Sells, president and CEO of Western Copper and Gold.

“I think that the federal government has been pretty clear that we have to look to new markets, and certainly Asia and China is a very important market to be looking toward.”

According to Liberum Capital mining analyst Richard Knights, large, undeveloped copper bodies are often freighted with numerous issues such as jurisdiction, private ownership and more.

The Highland Valley mine in B.C., which is owned by Teck Resources (TSX:TECK.B), is the largest open-pit copper mine in Canada. Yet, given the challenging geography, the area is still largely underexplored, even though the magnitude of the known deposit has made existing extraction efforts profitable. •