May 20, 2019 / 5:41 PM / a month ago

SolGold in talks to finance long-life Ecuador copper project

* Newcrest, BHP have jostled for position

* Ecuador seen as relatively low risk

* BHP has no comment on any further stake

By Barbara Lewis

JOHANNESBURG, May 20 (Reuters) - SolGold is in talks with financiers keen to invest in its Ecuadorian copper-gold prospects and mining major BHP could increase its stake in the company, SolGold’s chief executive said on Monday.

In a preliminary economic assessment of the Alpala copper-silver-gold deposit in northern Ecuador released earlier, London-listed SolGold said annual copper output should be 207,000 tonnes for the first 25 years of a mine life of roughly half a century.

Ecuador has attracted a flurry of interest from big miners eager to increase their exposure to copper. The highly conductive metal is in demand for use in renewable energy and electric vehicles, but big, new deposits are rare.

Diversified majors particularly favour such large-scale, long-life projects as SolGold promises.

CEO Nick Mather said the next steps included permit discussions with the Ecuadorian government and talks with potential investors.

He declined in a telephone interview to name the parties involved but said SolGold was open to all sorts of financing structures.

He said that BHP, SolGold’s second biggest shareholder, has room to increase its stake.

BHP declined to comment, but Refinitiv data shows it has just over 205 million shares in SolGold, below a threshold of a little more than 246 million set by an agreement last year, when BHP said it would not go beyond that without SolGold consent.

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Australia’s Newcrest Mining is SolGold’s biggest investor with 15.3%, while BHP has 11.2%.

“This is a company that is attracting people who have a bullish outlook for the copper market,” Mather said.

A definitive feasibility study is expected by the end of 2020 and a development decision should be taken around the same time on Alpala, the most advanced SolGold prospect, which is in Ecuador’s Cascabel region.

Other assets in SolGold’s Ecuadorian portfolio could be even more promising, Mather said.

BHP, which gets the biggest share of its earnings from iron ore, has also increased its Ecuador exposure with an outline deal with Canada’s Luminex Resources, which has gold-copper prospects.

Copper constitutes the second biggest share of BHP’s earnings and it has an operating stake in the world’s biggest copper mine Escondida in Chile. Escondida produces more than 1 million tonnes annually, although production fell in the first quarter.

While the outlook for iron ore is clouded by uncertainties over Chinese consumption and trade, copper is expected to see strong demand on rising levels of electrification and as the world shifts towards renewable power.

As the most obvious copper deposits become depleted, Ecuador appeals because the government is considered investor-friendly when some resource-holding nations are imposing increasingly tough terms. (Reporting by Barbara Lewis; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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