Will Colombia be a Major Copper Producer?
Colombia is the 5th largest coal exporter in the world and gold production has increased from 35.9t in 2018 to 49.9t in 2021. The country now has its sights on becoming a major copper producer. Colombia sits at the top of the Pacific copper belt, which starts in Chile and ends in Panama. The World Bank has stated that Colombia is one of six countries with the greatest copper potential in the world but what does this mean from a practical perspective.
All though Colombia has big aspirations, the reality Is that the country has struggled over the past decade to get large projects built. The country has been slow to bring major mining projects into operation with the sector trying to overcome challenges such as informal mining, speeding up licensing/permitting, and improving community relations.
The country has made some positive changes over the last couple years, but it is not known if this is enough to attract the investment that it is seeking. The country’s goal for 2030 is to double the production of gold from mining titles, multiply copper production by six, and generate investments of more than USD$5.5 billion.
Copper in Colombia
Colombias mining agency expects its copper output to jump more than tenfold to 100,000t/yr by 2025 as new projects come online. This seems like a tall order given that to date, Colombia produces only around 10,000mt/yr of copper from one mine, Canada’s Atico Mining’s El Roble mine in Choco department.
As per the project pipeline, there are three projects in the exploration phase—Mocoa, Quebradona, and San Matías. . Colombia has very little production to date but the government is betting on the geological potential.
In terms of projects that are nearest an investment decision, Quebradona is by far the most advanced. The investment is pegged at USD$1.4 billion. Although it is not without its difficulties, Colombia’s environmental regulator, ANLA, shelved the permit application in 2021 but the company expects to reapply in 2023.
Quebradona Project Overview
- With a potential 23-year life, the project is expected to treat 6.2 million tonnes (Mt) annually to produce 3 billion pounds of copper, 1.5Moz of gold and 21Moz of silver.
- Construction of the project is estimated to take approximately four-and-half years to complete.
- All-in sustaining costs are estimated at 88 US cents per pound over the life of mine, with all-in costs of US$1.23 per pound
- The underground mine will be built using the latest 4.0 technology, as well as attempting to keep energy consumption and carbon emissions to a minimum.
- The mine will recycle more than 80% of the water it uses and the water it does use will be returned to the environment with greater purity than it is initially received.
- The company is in the pilot stage of testing dual combustion with the use of green hydrogen and diesel in trucks, which will reduce emissions by between 20% and 30%, and expected to be used in the Quebradona copper project.
Colombia has the potential to be a future copper producer, but it is not yet clear whether it will be to the scale that it aspires for. Even with an already operating coal and gold industry, it still has not proved itself as a consistent mining jurisdiction. Not to say that it cannot hold its own, but it has not been able to bring projects on the same scale as you would see in neighbouring countries such as Chile, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador.
To do so, the country will need to improve permitting. Currently, government agencies are regional, and they have different analysis methodologies, times, procedures, and requirements. For the industry to grow, the private sector needs clarity on procedures and certainty in time frames. Something the government has been unable to achieve to date but is slowly improving.
For technology and service providers, there is plenty of opportunities that may attract foreign companies to Colombia. Since the mining market is not the same size as in neighbouring countries, Colombia is more interesting when you look at from a regional context. It sits well as a secondary market where if an opportunity presents itself then it may be worth having a local team, but it probably would not make sense to make it a home base for the region.
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