The analysis, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production 220 (2019), found 75% of deposits faced environmental, social or governance challenges that could impede their development.
The research team lead by professor Valenta developed a matrix of 12 risk categories that consider environmental, social, governance and mineralogical factors affecting the viability and accessibility of orebodies.
"We found that low copper grades was the sole challenge in only three or four per cent of the undeveloped orebodies we analysed," he said. Other risks could be overcome by investing in seawater desalination plants, using dry stack tailings dams and other approaches to reduce the external impacts of mining projects.
However, he cautioned that resolving non-technical factors will increasingly be the key to successful project development. "The mining industry has been very successful in technological advances and increasing production volume while lowering costs, but this is not going to make those mines accessible. The remaining three-quarters of the complex orebodies face environmental, social and governance risks," he said.
"The industry needs to better manage these risks. If they are not dealt with prior to production starting early on, there could be serious environmental and social impacts. It is time for the industry to diversify its core competencies and take greater account of environmental, social and governance risks," said researcher Dr Éleonore Lèbre.
The top 40 deposits account for about 530 million tonnes of copper metal, or about 20 years supply at current consumption rates. The analysis shows virtually all of the undeveloped copper deposits suggest moderate to high levels of risk across multiple categories. The most prevalent risks are grade and infrastructure followed by water and tailings.
The authors concluded grade risk could be met somewhat in an increasing copper price environment, which is set to increase given the copper supply and demand balance is becoming tighter. However, an increasing copper price will not meet the challenge of the multiple risks many projects face. "To unlock these orebodies will require developers to innovate across a range of discipline areas," said the study.
"A majority of the ESG (environmental, social and governmental) risks analysed in this study are indirectly price-sensitive or price-insensitive, meaning that improved prices for copper metal alone, may not be sufficient for addressing the underlying complexity of the project. … Where projects face multiple price insensitive risks, these risks could carry through with the project," it said.