Copper miners take hunt to Mongolian dunes

Barbara Lewis –

When temperatures rise and winds drop in the coming weeks, a band of explorers will hunt for copper riches in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. For years Rio Tinto has been the sole international copper mine operator in Mongolia, bound closely to a country where it has bet billions of dollars on the giant Oyu Tolgoi project.
Others have steered clear due to the risks of operating in a nation with an unpredictable and young democracy and judiciary, a frail economy and extreme weather.
Now rising global demand for a metal used in electric cars and renewable energy, at a time of increased costs and depleted deposits in the world’s biggest copper producer Chile, is driving miners to riskier locations. Some are looking to Mongolia.
Geologists say deposits like Oyu Tolgoi — meaning Turquoise Hill because of the staining of the rocks by oxidised copper — rarely occur in isolation.
That means, for some miners, the chances of finding another make the east Asian nation worth a calculated gamble, especially given its proximity to the world’s biggest copper consumer, China.
The new charge is led by a group of about half a dozen smaller players, including Australia’s Xanadu Mines, Canada’s Kincora Copper and US company Wood Capital Partners, which have higher risk appetites and are seeking to steal a march on competitors.
Wood Capital Partners, set up by two former Citigroup bankers and specialised in acquiring distressed assets, said it had invested “several million dollars” in exploration territory in the Southern Gobi.
Co-CEO and Managing Partner Stephen Dizard said the firm bought the concession — which is 364 square km, or about six times the size of Manhattan — from a frontier markets fund which was in liquidation.
He wanted to get into Mongolia ahead of a rush driven by the global hunt for new copper.
He said miners would become increasingly confident in buying assets in the country because the economy was slowly improving, aided by an International Monetary Fund bailout.
“It (Mongolia) was distressed financially and distressed across the sector,” Dizard added. “We took the view, the situation had to improve. It has.”
Beginning in March and April, he said the company’s drilling budget would be “a minimum of a seven-figure number”.
Sam Spring, CEO of Kincora, said it raised about $4.5 million last year to fund its Mongolian exploration.
The company, which has licences for more than 1,400 square km of land, drilled 6,000 metres last year and results were promising, and that it would step up activity in late March or early April.
“We’ve started to see a change of investor sentiment.
There is increasing infrastructure and hopefully we are seeing tailwinds rather than headwinds,” added Spring, who describes Mongolia as one of the last frontiers for top-quality copper assets.
Andrew Stewart, CEO of Xanadu, thinks he will be able to gather enough information over the coming months to determine whether he can justify establishing a mine in the country.
He is planning drilling using four rigs compared with two last year. “Mongolia is very good because it has the prospectivity,” he said.
The dream is another discovery on the scale of Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi — a chain of deposits in the southern Gobi, about 550 km south of the capital Ulaanbaatar and 80 km north of the border with China.
But even Rio Tinto, which is relying on Mongolia to drive growth after committing about $12 billion to the project, only resumed exploration there last year after a five-year hiatus during the copper market downturn.
The Anglo-Australian miner says it has still to make any return on its investment, but in January it announced an exploration office in Ulaanbaatar, its first formal office in the capital. This was a symbolic move intended to underline to the government its commitment to the country, according to sources. — Reuters