Exploration spend to surge 20% in 2021 says S&P

Article by Mining Journal
9 March 2021

Exploration spending is set to swell by around 20% in 2021, as cashed up juniors and majors reactivate plans post-COVID, Mark Ferguson, head of mining studies at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Copper and gold will outperform other metals, accounting for a huge chunk of the predicted $10 billion spend this year, but exploration will be more "broad based" than S&P anticipated six months ago when gold was the only bull in the metals market, Ferguson the virtual PDAC 2021 forum.

The jump in the gold price drove the initial uptick in investors piling into mining equities last year but raisings by other commodity miners recovered later in the year - thanks to the jump in copper, iron ore and other metal prices - meaning finance is no object to exploration in 2021.

Exploration budgets fell 11% globally last year, according to S&P analysis.

However, not all metals exploration took a hit - copper and zinc fell significantly while gold and silver remained buoyant.

A total of US$8.3 billion was spent on mining exploration despite the pandemic - thanks to the rebound metal prices and mining equities last year after the COVID-19 outbreak in March.

"With relatively firm prices, gold and silver managed to hold their own but copper and zinc [exploration allocations] struggled with 24% and 21% declines," he said.

Mining exploration in Peru, Chile - both with sizeable copper deposits - both suffered huge drops, due to government lockdown restrictions.

"A lot of the majors were unable to get their staff in the field so there was some pullback in copper allocations," he said.

"In Australia, it was difficult to get staff into remote areas because government was trying to protect indigenous peoples", he added.

Ferguson sounded a note of warning about the acute lack of recent discoveries of gold, and battery metals including copper and nickel, which are set to be in high demand to build green energy infrastructure.

"There is a lack of new discoveries [in gold] over the past 15 years despite the large amounts of exploration devoted to the sector. Copper discoveries in recent years still pales in comparison to previous periods," he added.

On zinc and nickel exploration, challenges also exist. Just 4% of zinc major discoveries were made in the last decade.

"There aren't many nickel sulphite discoveries that are going to be important to meet demand emerging from EV and battery sectors," he added.

Just under half of exploration budgets was dedicated to mine site exploration in 2020 marking "an all-time high", Ferguson noted.

This denotes identifying additional resources around the existing operation in order to extend the mine life.

Despite stoppages earlier in the year, exploration activity rebounded quickly last year and ended the year at an eight-year high.