Production of copper and other metals will continue at Utah’s Bingham Canyon Mine through at least 2032 under a $1.5 billion investment announced Tuesday by mine owner Rio Tinto.
The investment, which will be used to tap a rich ore body in the mine’s south wall and build infrastructure, will preserve hundreds of mining jobs that were slated to disappear soon after 2026. That’s when Rio Tinto subsidiary Kennecott Utah Copper previously had planned to retire its massive open-pit mine operating for more than a century in the Oquirrh Mountains southwest of Salt Lake City.
The move comes in response to anticipated increases in demand for copper and other metals produced at Kennecott, according to Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques.
“The outlook for copper is attractive, with strong growth in demand driven by its use in electric vehicles and renewable power technologies, and declining grades and closures at existing mines impacting supply,” Jacques said in a news release. “Kennecott is uniquely positioned to meet strong demand in the United States and delivers almost 20% of the country’s copper production."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert welcomed Tuesday's announcement.
“This significant investment will continue to fuel economic growth and employment for many years," he said. "They have shown commitment to business in our state, and we are grateful to them for being upstanding corporate citizens in our community.”
Kennecott has fully recovered from a catastrophic landslide in 2013, according to spokesman Kyle Bennett. That wall collapse set back production, but output of refined copper soared 55% over the previous year, he said, largely because the ore mined was of a higher quality.
“There is a lot of mineralization in the area,” Bennett said. “This investment will allow us to to explore optionality to take [the mine] beyond 2032.”
The Bingham Canyon Mine accounts for all the molybdenum and silver produced in Utah and nearly all the copper and gold. Last year, it yielded 233,000 tons of copper, worth about $3 per pound, or nearly $1.4 billion, according to the Utah Geological Survey.
“Copper is a gateway metal. When you get copper, you get gold, silver and a number of other metals as well,” Bennett said. For Kennecott, these could include obscure metals with atomic addresses way down the periodic table, such as rhenium, used in alloys for military jet engines, and tellurium, used in photovoltaic solar cells.
While such metals are vital to the nation's economic future, there are few domestic producers.
"We have a lot of potential here outside copper, gold and molybdenum. Taking this holistic approach will allow us to meet that growing demand," Bennett said. "The more we can do to recover these domestically, it gives us an opportunity to provide for national defense."
Kennecott also processes 12,500 tons of recycled copper a month at its Magna smelter, enough to wire 550 new homes.
Since 2008, Kennecott has produced 2.7 million tons of refined copper, 3.3 million ounces of gold, 35.2 million ounces of silver and 200 million pounds of molybdenum. It has paid nearly $500 million in taxes and royalties in Utah since 2013 while employing 1,900 workers.