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Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (FCX)’s Giant Grasberg Problem

Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (NYSE:FCX)’s   biggest asset is also its biggest liability. If you know anything about Freeport, you know that its biggest money maker is the Grasberg in Papua (the Indonesian half of New Guinea), the world’s biggest gold mine and second-biggest copper operation.

When it’s operating, the Grasberg produces an impressive 1 million pounds of copper and 1,000 ounces of gold a day. The problem is that the Grasberg isn’t operating that much; in recent years the mine has been closed more than it has been open. The latest closure from May 15 to June 21 cost Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (NYSE:FCX) 115,000 ounces of gold and 115 million pounds of copper.

Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (NYSE:FCX)The reason for that closure was a tunnel collapse that shut down the open pit operations there and killed 28 workers on May 14. The mine appears to be unstable and unsafe and the object of violence. One of the main reasons for its reopening appears to be that the miners were rioting and attacking the mine to get it to reopen. It seems the miners are so poor that they cannot afford to be out of work for even a few weeks.

This was only the latest act of unrest and violence at the Grasberg; a strike in 2011 shut the mine down for months. The mine and Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (NYSE:FCX) have also been targets of attacks by rebels in the area, who want to be independent of Indonesia. The rebels are mostly Christians, who don’t like the idea of most of the money produced by mines going to the Islamic-controlled government in Djakarta.

The really scary thing is that some of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (NYSE:FCX)’s fundamentals are actually better than other big players that rely on mega mines. The copper company reported a year-over-year quarterly revenue growth rate of 0.5% on March 31. That sounds pathetic but it’s rosy compared to Barrick Gold Corporation (USA) (NYSE:ABX), which posted a year-to-year revenue growth rate of approximately -5.7% and Newmont Mining Corp (NYSE:NEM)’s -18.9% figure.

Mega-mines are a liability

Yes, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (NYSE:FCX) has a huge money maker in the form of the Grasberg, but it also has a massive liability. Mining companies like Freeport have been able to greatly increase their production and cash flows by building such mega-mines. Yet they’ve also greatly increased their liabilities.

The experience of other miners with mega mines is even worse than Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (NYSE:FCX)’s; at least Freeport is able to occasionally get some gold and copper out of the Grasberg. Newmont Mining Corp (NYSE:NEM) and Barrick Gold Corporation (USA) (NYSE:ABX) haven’t been able to get a single ounce out of two multi-billion dollar projects.

Newmont Mining Corp (NYSE:NEM) has sunk $5 billion into its Conga gold mine in Peru but still hasn’t mined a single ounce of gold there. Protestors, mostly local farmers who think the mine will ruin the water supply, have managed to stop it from opening. Not even support from Peru’s President Ollanta Humala has enabled Newmont to start digging at the Conga.

Barrick Gold has spent $5.5 billion on the Pascua Lima project in Chile, which, like the Conga, has not yet produced a single ounce of gold.

Mega-mines are definitely a bad risk for mining companies and for investors. Instead of cash cows, they look more and more like back holes into which cash disappears never to be seen again.

A mega-mine that might make money

Okay, at least one miner has had some success with a mega-mine lately, but it’s hardly reassuring. Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO) has finally started shipping copper to China from its $6.6 billion Oyu Tolgoi mine in Mongolia. Or at least that’s what Mongolia’s mining minister tweeted to the press. News stories haven’t actually confirmed the shipments; they only printed what a politician says.

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