Copper is the missing ingredient of the energy transition (The Economist – March 30, 2023)

Where on Earth will it be found?

At 76, richard adkerson is an elder statesman of the copper industry. For two decades he has been ceo of Freeport-McMoRan, one of the world’s biggest copper producers, valued at $55bn. He has seen it all, from short-term booms and busts to the China-led supercycle, and from industry fragmentation to consolidation. Freeport itself has pioneered some of the trends.

In 2007, when it paid $26bn for Phelps Dodge, an Arizona-based company dating back to the Wild West days of the 19th century, it was the biggest mining transaction ever. It was also a masterstroke. Not so the company’s ill-fated diversification into oil and gas less than half a decade later, which he says was not his idea. That caused a near-death experience and had to be swiftly unwound after both energy and metal prices crashed in 2016.

Appropriately for a mining-industry executive, he has a gravelly voice, which he uses to conjecture about a potential copper crunch. The pressures of industrial development in the emerging world, as well as progressing electrification and decarbonisation as part of the energy transition, are likely to turbocharge demand for the red metal.

S&P Global, a consultancy, expects copper consumption to double to 50m tonnes between now and 2035. Yet unless prices rise sharply, supply is unlikely to keep up. Besides new copper mines coming on stream in Mongolia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, such projects are thin on the ground, Mr Adkerson says. Concerns about the environment and indigenous rights make it harder to win approval for them.

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