Copper reserve, resource, and production data can be combined to produce disaggregated resource estimates and trends and, when combined with demand forecasts, can be used to predict future exploration and development requirements.
Reserve estimates are subject to uncertainties due mainly to incomplete exploration and rapidly changing economic conditions. United States' reserve estimates in the past have been low mainly because knowledge of the magnitude of very large porphyry-copper deposits has been incomplete. Present estimates are considerably more reliable because mining firms tend to drill out deposits fully before mining and to release their reserve estimates to the public.
The sum of reserves and past production yields an estimate of the total ore, total metal contained in ore, and average grade of ore originally in each of the deposits known in the United States. For most deposits, estimates of total copper in ore are low relative to the total copper in mineralized rock, and many estimates are strongly affected by the economic behavior of mining firms. A better estimate of the real distribution of copper contained in deposits can be obtained by combining past production data with resource estimates.
Copper resource data are disaggregated into categories that include resources in undeveloped deposits similar to those mined in the past, resources in mines closed because of unfavorable economic conditions, resources in deep deposits requiring high-cost mining methods, arid resources in deposits located in areas where environmental restrictions have contributed to delays in development. The largest resource is located in the five largest porphyry deposits. These deposits are now being mined but the resources are not included in the present mining plan. Resources in this last category will not contribute to supply until some future time when ores presently being mined are depleted.
A high correlation exists between total copper contained in deposits and annual production from deposits. This correlation can be used to predict roughly the potential production from undeveloped deposits. Large deposits annually produce relatively less metal per ton of copper contained than do medium and small deposits.
Dividing reserves by annual production gives a depletion date for each copper mine. The sum of annual production capacity of all mines not yet depleted at any year of interest gives the minimum production capacity for that year. A graph of minimum production capacity by year combined with curves representing potential capacity from undeveloped identified resources can be compared with various demand scenarios to yield a measure of copper requirements from new sources.
Since 1950 reserves have been developed in the United States at a rate of about 1 million tons of copper per year. Since 1960 the number of deposits developed per 10-year period has greatly increased without a commensurate increase in tonnage of copper. This is in part due to the fact that recent exploration successes have been increasingly represented by smaller and (or) lower grade deposits containing less metal.