Propelling copper-rich South Australia to the world

OZ Minerals is focused on getting the Carrapateena project built and ramped up to full production by mid-2021. Image: OZ Minerals

South Australia’s appetite to meet the rise in demand for copper, electric vehicles and renewable energy has been matched by the vision of its miners. OZ Minerals chief executive Andrew Cole speaks to Vanessa Zhou about being a leader of these global trends.

South Australia is gearing up to meet the 21st century transition towards a low-carbon economy with major operations like BHP’s Olympic Dam site.

BHP’s ambition to increase Olympic Dam’s copper production by 75 per cent to 350,000 tonnes per year is not inexplicable, given the pursuit of another company to build copper mines in South Australia that last decades.

OZ Minerals is this other company, and among its focus on “half a dozen copper jurisdictions around the world”, South Australia remains the top priority.

The success rate for finding copper deposits in South Australia is reportedly twice the world average, according to MinEx Consulting managing director Richard Shodde.

OZ Minerals chief executive Andrew Cole specifically underlines the massive potential of the Gawler Craton, the belt of rock that stretches much of the distance between Port Augusta to Coober Pedy.

BHP’s Olympic Dam mine and OZ Minerals’ Prominent Hill and Carrapateena projects all call this belt rock home.

“We think [the Gawler Craton] is one of the top six jurisdictions in the world for copper deposits,” Cole tells Australian Mining

“We’re halfway through constructing [Carrapateena] at the moment, and in April 2019 we will start our underground development in the top of the orebody.

“Our current base case is to build a 20-year mine life, 4.25 million tonnes processing plant and we’ll run the operation for 20 years.

OZ Minerals is focused on getting the Carrapateena project built and ramped up to full production by mid-2021.

“But what we’re already working on is an expansion plan for Carrapateena, because Carrapateena is a very big mineralised body and our current base case is only to take about 10 per cent of that deposit. Our expansion plan is looking at how much more we can take of that.”

Cole points out there are three other deposits within 10 kilometres of Carrapateena – the Saddle, Fremantle Doctor and Khamsin. OZ Minerals aspires to take more of these copper resources over the longer term and is working on future plans to bring that to fruition.

“I fundamentally believe there will be more to find in the Gawler Craton. It’s technically quite challenging to explore, but we’ve got an exploration program around Prominent Hill and one around Carrapateena and we’ll be drilling more targets throughout this year,” Cole says.

“Hopefully there will be discoveries made into the future. What we’re trying to work on now is to really understand the full potential.”

The company envisions that Carrapateena will be mined for decades and is designing a mining operation that is future-proof.

International Copper Association Australia chief executive John Fennell believes mining operations have to innovate to meet increasingly higher standards by regulators and the community.

They also face challenges to find new discoveries, extend the life of existing mines and operate efficiently, he says.

“We’re seeing lots of smart ideas from our members and others in precision mining, decision automation, mine autonomy, low emissions, advanced processing and ultimately in-situ mining that promise to make mining a smart, safe, export driven industry,” Fennell says.

OZ Minerals not only plans to use autonomous equipment to take workers out of hazardous underground environments at Carrapateena, but also aspires to take a leading position in using renewable energy on-site.

The mine is running a trial to integrate solar wind and batteries into a base load energy supply and shrink its carbon footprints.

OZ Minerals will use findings from the trial in the design of the West Musgrave open-pit mine in Western Australia, which is in pre-feasibility study stage. The project is being developed to include a fully renewable off-grid energy solution, according to Cole.

“South Australia is already taking a lead in the push for renewable energy over the last few years,” he says.

“It doesn’t mean we get it right all the time. It doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes on the journey, but having that ambitious goal is important.”

Carrapateena: mine site for generations

OZ Minerals is focused on designing a working environment that appeals to that next generation as part of its effort in building a future-proof mine.

Cole says the next generation is looking for different things from the workforce than previous generations.

OZ Minerals’ headquarters in Adelaide, South Australia.

 

As an example, the company is working on providing complete flexibility for the workforce. It has already instilled flexible working to its corporate office in Adelaide and is experimenting with this strategy at its Prominent Hill site.

“We’re trying to design our operations to be flexible to allow people to choose and decide when they do and don’t work depending on their own personal circumstances,” Cole says.

Carrapateena will source talent from local communities, such as Coober Pedy, Port Augusta and Woomera. Getting people job-ready, training them and bringing them into the workforce makes “good business sense” and is “the right thing to do,” according to Cole.

South Australia has the resources and expertise to meet the world’s increasing need for copper, the Department for Energy and Mining chief executive Paul Heithersay confirms.

“More than a decade of support for mineral discoveries through the various Plan for Accelerated Exploration initiatives and the qualitative analysis provided by the Geological Survey of South Australia has underpinned the state’s attractiveness as an investment destination,” Heithersay says.

“Our copper strategy continues to encourage existing producers to expand their production and foster global interest in the potential for further world-class discoveries.”

Bolstering the Hill’s prominence

OZ Minerals’ early development plan at Carrapateena follows the track of its predecessor, Prominent Hill.

The company has completed exploration programs at around 100 kilometres of the Prominent Hill tenements, identifying about 80 million tonnes of inferred resources that are not included in its mine plan.

OZ Minerals is speeding up this mineral exploration with energy and resources open innovation platform Unearthed by releasing two terabytes of project data for the discovery of new exploration targets at Prominent Hill.

Prominent Hill operation at night.

 

“One of our core philosophies is to use partnerships whenever we can, and that philosophy is about trying to engage all different thinking styles, different people, different backgrounds, different sectors around the world to help us achieve our objectives,” Cole says.

“We’ve got a lot of data, but today we haven’t found another deposit that we can actually economically mine. So this initiative is about making available all of the data that we have and the [South Australian] government has also made data they have available – allowing everybody in the world effectively to dive in to that data and help us come out with new targets that we can drill and new ways of working on the exploration data set.”

The $1 million-prize competition is engaging and motivating geologists, data scientists and mathematicians, and has attracted over 769 participants from over 60 countries.

The winning exploration model will be tested in real life and the top targets will be drilled by 2019. 

OZ Minerals is also looking to grow Prominent Hill’s annual mining rate from what’s currently under four million tonnes a year to well above that capacity.

This potentially involves changing the way the operations haul ore from underground, using alternatives such as conveying or shaft systems and to stop trucking, according to Cole.

“It’s still going to be another year before we have any sort of guidance of whether that will be feasible or not,” Cole says.

“But I think it’s potentially quite an exciting opportunity because it’ll turn Prominent Hill into a bigger underground operation than it currently is. Prominent Hill’s mine life will most likely go longer than 2030.”

More metals to discover

South Australia is geologically attractive for mines and exploration programs, and the state government and industry bodies would agree that the Gawler Craton is one of the highest ranked copper resource bases in the world, Cole says.

The Tjati decline provides access to the copper-gold deposit at Carrapateena.

 

BHP’s discovery at Oak Dam west and drilling campaigns including the Lake Torrens joint venture between Aeris and Argonaut highlight South Australia’s potential for new world-class copper discoveries.

Proposed expansions at both Olympic Dam and Carrapateena and the extension of Prominent Hill’s mine life will put South Australia in the box seat for further investment towards reaching a target of one million tonnes of year of copper production, according to Heithersay.

The South Australian Government has also adopted a growth agenda that will rely on increased exports to help pick up its gross state product (GSP) – with copper set to play a key role in achieving the state’s three per cent growth target.

“The South Australian Government recognises that development of our copper potential will require support from beyond our borders,” Heithersay says.

“Other copper jurisdictions have lessons that can be learned here and South Australia is keen to widen its connections to share information, knowledge and capital to overcome challenges and identify opportunities for further develop our mineral wealth.

“The world will need more copper in the future. We want to work with other copper-exporting countries to meet that need.”

The South Australian Department for Energy and Mining will host the Copper to the World conference in Adelaide on June 17-18. The event will fly in international experts to share global perspectives on the future of copper, and delve into trends, opportunities and developments across the value chain.

This article also appears in the May 2019 edition of Australian Mining.

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