copper bar with copper pellets around it

Australian copper mines produced some 900,000 tonnes of the red metal in 2021, up from 884,000 the year before.

As the home of the world’s second largest reserves of copper behind Chile and the sixth largest producer of the red metal worldwide, Australia has dozens of producing copper mines.

Government data from 2020 shows there were 38 operational mines that year, although since then more have come online, and plenty more projects are in the exploration and development stages.

These 38 operational mines are spread across most of Australia’s jurisdictions.

The largest single copper mine in Australia is located in the nation’s premier copper jurisdiction: South Australia. The Olympic Dam polymetallic mine, owned by BHP (ASX:BHP,LSE:BHP,NYSE:BHP), produced about 205,000 tonnes of copper cathode in the 2021 financial year, an increase of 20 percent from 2020. This was also the most copper the Olympic Dam had produced in a single year since its acquisition in 2005.

While Olympic Dam is far from BHP’s largest copper mine, it sits upon the fourth largest copper deposit in the world and also produces uranium and gold.

South Australia is home to four operational mines and holds the lion’s share of Australia’s economic demonstrated reserves of copper, taking 69 percent of that pie; it’s followed by New South Wales (14 percent), Queensland (10 percent), Western Australia (6 percent) and Tasmania (1 percent).

While South Australia has the most copper reserves, the state with the most mines is Queensland, where there are 14 as of 2020. New South Wales has 12, while Western Australia has 9.

The jurisdiction home to the remaining operational mine is Tasmania, and there are developing copper projects in Victoria and the Northern Territory.

Besides Olympic Dam, Australia is home to Glencore’s (LSE:GLEN,OTC Pink:GLCNF) Mount Isa Mines complex in Queensland, where copper is produced from two operating underground mines: Enterprise and X41. Together, they make Mount Isa Mines the second largest producer of copper in the country. Aside from Mount Isa Mines, Glencore also owns the nearby Ernest Henry mine.

Behind these assets, some of the copper mines sitting on larger reserves are Northparkes and Cadia East in New South Wales, owned by China Molybdenum (HKEX:3993,OTC Pink:CMCLF) and Newcrest Mining (ASX:NCM,OTC Pink:NCMGF) respectively, along with the Telfer mine in Western Australia, which is also owned by Newcrest Mining.

The remaining mines sit on smaller reserves primarily in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia, but as mentioned, there are known copper deposits country-wide.

For the quarter ended December 2021, the Australian Government reported a copper exploration expenditure of AU$172.1 million. The year as a whole saw a total copper exploration expenditure of AU$549.8 million.

Exploration and development is happening across Australia, with OZ Minerals (ASX:OZL,OTC Pink:OZMLF) producing the first mine concentrate at its Carrapateena mine in South Australia in 2019 and commencing expansion in 2021.

Mining major Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO,LSE:RIO,NYSE:RIO) has been busy drilling on its tenements in Western Australia, with first ore expected at its Winu copper-gold project in 2024. Winu is sitting on an inferred mineral resource of 503 million tonnes of ore at 0.43 percent copper equivalent, with the company planning a shallow open-pit mine to exploit the resources there.

Hammer Metals (ASX:HMX) is busy developing its Mount Isa project in Northwest Queensland, while Havilah Resources (ASX:HAV) in South Australia is spruiking its Kalkaroo project as the largest undeveloped open-pit copper discovery in the country, with the company reporting Kalkaroo contains some 1.1 million tonnes of copper.

There are also development projects happening in jurisdictions without active mines, such as the Bonya joint venture in the Northern Territory, shared between Arafura Resources (ASX:ARU,OTC Pink:ARAFF) at 60 percent and Thor Mining (LSE:THR,OTC Pink:THORF) at 40 percent. As well, the Stavely copper-gold project in Western Victoria, which is being developed by Stavely Minerals (ASX:SVY), recently made high-grade hits up to 7.17 percent copper, along with 30.6 grams per tonne (g/t) gold and 52 g/t of silver.

The future for copper production in Australia remains bright through the next few years thanks to increasing prices and large investments in exploration and development. The Australian government forecasts an increase in copper export earnings of 2.6 percent per year for the next few years,, with exports expected to hit 1 million tonnes per annum in 2026-27.

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Securities Disclosure: I, Matthew Flood, currently hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

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