Olympic Dam upgrades & expansion crucial to BHPs future operations


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Mining giant BHP Billiton has announced revised figures that significantly upgrade the reclaimable reserves for its flagship Olympic Dam operation in southern Australia.

New figures released by BHP (NYSE:BHP) point to a 22% increase from 284 thousand tonnes to 347.5 thousand tonnes of of U3O8, due to mineral re-classification as operational drilling taps into larger sources. BHP has correspondingly upgraded the operational lifetime of Olympic Dam from 43 to 54 years.

Olympic Dam is arguably BHP’s most valuable asset, as it is a multi-mineral source combining the world’s 4th largest copper deposit, 5th largest gold deposit & significant amounts of silver. It is also currently the world’s largest single uranium ore deposit.

With a production level of 3344tU last year, Olypic Dam is placed 4th in extraction levels for uranium, BHP are now looking to expand the size of their operations on this site. At present, all mining activities are conducted underground, however, BHP has submitted an expansion plan to local government that would see open pit miningf being introduced to the site. With government expected to make a preliminary decion on the expansion project next year, this is a critical time for BHP, as the following chart illustrates.

Olypic_Dam

In an earlier post, we discussed the impact of Sino energy requirements on Australian miners, as the Chinese are heavily commited to reducing pollution & are searching for cleaner energy sources to power their expanding economic requirements. In April this year, Chinese officials announced they would start building five extra power plants this year on top of the 24 already under construction & 11 already in operation.

“There are not enough uranium resources in China to support the aggressive nuclear power development plan for the next 20-30 years,” said Professor Liu Deshun, of China’s Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology. “Australia has the uranium resources that could be exported and in China we have the demand”

Earlier this year, BHP managed to successfully expand into the Yeelirrie deposit in Western Australia, which is estimated to  have a 10 to 12-year lifespan and a resource of 35,000 tonnes of uranium,  as a result of the Western Australian government lifting a six year old ban on uranium extraction in the state. With this prescedent & also the ability to secure long term supply contracts to China, Australian Minister for Resources, Martin Ferguson, has indicated the Federal Government was unlikely to stand in the way, subject to environmental and investment tests.

In the short term, this could also have a large knock on effect on the share price of some of it’s key competitors, namely Freeport McMoRan & Rio Tinto. Rio is also a top producer of uranium ore, with it’s Ranger Mine in Kakadu, which currently supplies 10% of global requirements, any uplift in BHP’s production capacity is sure to impact that figure.

More interestingly for me, there has been much speculation that BHP could be looking to acquire Freeport McMoRan (NYSE:FCX)  in order to bolster their gold & copper production, however, referring to the anticipated production uplift in both of these commodities if the expansion plan is successful, why would BHP Billiton look at dishing out more than $27 Bn, when they could integrate on an existing site?

The Australian government is also more likely to sponsor the expansion project in my point of view, as it will keep the majority of that cash pile invested in the country & help to secure more than 15,000 jobs directly & indirectly for the lifetime of Olypic Dam. Perhaps readers of the WSJ should think a little more on geo-political terms when voting on nonsensical polls.

Original editorial at MyStockVoice.com

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