Less than four months ago, copper was setting record prices and experts were forecasting long-term supply gaps due to a collision between the growing demand for copper in clean-power technologies and the cost and difficulties of developing new mines. “Even if the price of copper were to double overnight, it would still be years before we had significant incremental production coming on,” said Richard Adkerson, CEO of Freeport-McMoran, the world’s largest publicly traded copper miner in a March 31 article by Bloomberg News.
Since then, like the stock market, copper prices have been declining, dropping to six-month lows in May and again last week. Vanessa Davidson, top copper analyst at business intel firm CRU, attributed the weak pricing to “the possibility of lower GDP or industrial production triggered by geopolitical risks, high inflation becoming more embedded in the economy, or the effects of Covid-19 lasting longer than anticipated,” at a June 13 mining conference.
The volatility of the last few months was tracked in real time by subscribers to Resilinc’s CommodityWatchAI as the service alerted customers to protests in Peru, droughts in Chile, M&As in the mining industry and other disruptions—as well as the larger economic factors mentioned by Davidson. And just in the last few days, trade media such as Mining.com, MetalsNews, and FXStreet have posted headlines predicting more price drops—”Copper price sinks to 10-month low on recession worries”—and major price increases—“Copper prices set to rise as supply lags.”
That last headline in Intellinews cited Goldman Sachs metals strategist Nick Snowdon forecasting prices as high as $15,000 per metric ton (current pricing is around $9,200), with the increases driven by extreme supply shortages that he expects to occur as demand rises for electric vehicles—which use three to four times as much copper as conventional vehicles—and clean electric power technologies like solar and wind. Echoing Freeport McMoran’s Adkerson, Snowdon said, “By the end of the decade, [we’re forecasting] the largest ever long-term deficit. It’s just an impossibly tight future.”
While supplies will be tight for many critical minerals and rare earth elements, copper is uniquely important for the electrification of energy uses currently provided by fossil fuels—a strategy that is seen as vital to reducing global greenhouse gases. The International Energy Agency expects demand for copper associated with electrification to grow by between 50% and 300% by 2040.
Where new copper sources will come from is an issue of major concern geopolitically. Of the three largest new mines cited by Goldman Sach’s Snowdon, one is in Russia. But given its location in the east, it’s expected to mostly serve China and India.
For domestic copper production, industry advocates worry that environmental regulations and protests will keep the U.S. dependent on foreign sources. “While efforts are underway to maximize the amount of copper we can reintroduce to the U.S. supply chain through recycling, the scale of the demand required for the clean energy transition makes new copper extraction and processing an unavoidable reality,” wrote Andrew Kireta Jr., president of the trade group Copper Development Association, in GreenBiz. “Meeting this demand, without jeopardizing U.S. economic and national security by increasing reliance on foreign copper sources, requires permitting reform for both mining and smelting.”
Case in point as reported by the Wall Street Journal: Alaska’s Pebble Mine— which “could be one of the world’s largest suppliers of copper and gold”—recently met a crippling regulatory roadblock from the EPA in late May when the agency banned the disposal of wastewater within 300 miles of the mine site. “Minerals and metals will still be mined, but in countries with far fewer environmental protections such as Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and China,” wrote the WSJ editorial board. “The next time a politician bemoans America’s supply-chain vulnerability, ask which specific mining project he supports.”
How copper supplies will rise to meet the demand for a clean-energy transition is still an open question at this point.
Cooper will be one of many raw minerals and commodities that Resilinc helps its customers stay on top of through CommodityWatchAI: an Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered tool that monitors over four million data sources and trends on key commodities – including but not limited to gold, copper, aluminum, silicon, and paper. It also predicts price fluctuations in the coming months by analyzing historical data on how these commodities have responded when faced with similar circumstances. Armed with this data, organizations can make strategic purchasing decisions, negotiate favorable contracts, and protect continuity of supply.