By Zandi Shabalala and Ernest Scheyder
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Global copper producers are converging in Chile this week as tightening supply buoys prices, even as the industry grapples with declining ore quality, project delays and worries the U.S-China trade war may hit long-term demand.
Despite these challenges, the industry is planning for substantial growth in the next decade thanks to an expected boom in production of electric vehicles, which use twice as much copper as internal combustion engines. Automakers are vowing to produce all-electric fleets.
With all that in mind, hundreds of investors, executives, analysts and regulators are gathering in Santiago, the Chilean capital, for the annual World Copper Conference.
"From a numbers perspective we have a deficit in copper, and it's expected to be a tighter market in 2019 relative to last year," said Eleni Joannides, a copper market analyst at consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
(GRAPHIC - LME cash copper price, https://tmsnrt.rs/2Vr2Qzw )
Relatively upbeat commodity prices since January have lifted producers such as Freeport-McMoRan Inc, Antofagasta Plc, BHP and Anglo American Plc out of the doldrums and presented them with a new problem: the hunt for high-quality assets at a time of geo-political uncertainty.
LME cash copper is expected to average $6,397 a tonne this year, a Reuters poll of 30 analysts shows, slightly lower than $6,437 on Friday.
"I think we're heading into a bull market for copper," said Jefferies mining analyst Christopher LaFemina.
A lack of new supply and steady demand this year for the metal, widely used in power and construction, should keep the 25-million-tonne market in a slight deficit and support prices, analysts said.
The industry is moving to bring new supply online, but it will take time. Freeport, the world's largest publicly traded copper producer, cut its 2019 output forecast at Indonesia's Grasberg mines by more than half as it transitions to underground operations, a costly process that will take years.
But Freeport, BHP, Nevada Copper Corp and other miners are spending more than $1.1 billion to develop fresh copper projects in the United States, a country once seen as a laggard in the global mining industry.
Panama, not historically associated with a large mining industry, is also seeing investment dollars. First Quantum Minerals Ltd plans to spend $327 million to expand a copper mine, with the goal of increasing production by 375,000 tonnes annually within five years.
(GRAPHIC - Exchange stocks for copper, https://tmsnrt.rs/2VmZbmd )
Tightening supply this year was Freeport, due in part to the Grasberg mine plan, while miner Glencore halved its 2019 output from its Mutanda copper and cobalt mine in Democratic Republic of Congo to 100,000 tonnes.
Meanwhile, global visible inventory in the form of combined stocks held by the London Metal Exchange, Comex and the Shanghai Futures Exchange have nearly halved from a year ago to around 500,000 tonnes, data from the exchanges show.
(GRAPHIC - Mining companies vs Copper price, https://tmsnrt.rs/2Vs3xJ8 )
Analysts said this has helped boost sentiment in copper and some other metals, which had been held down by the U.S-China trade dispute and hiccups in economic growth of top consumer China where stimulus has been promised.
Copper is one of the metals that will benefit the most from an expected boom in the use of electrical vehicles, but significant demand for the low-emission automobiles is expected to only ramp up in the middle of 2020's.
Roskill expects sales of electric vehicles powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to rise to 17 million units, or 20 percent of the total, in 2025, and 32 million, or 37 percent, by 2030 compared with 3 percent, or 2.1 million, last year.
Still, some copper executives are concerned that aluminium may try to supplant copper's role in electronic equipment in the near future. Aluminium is a cheaper alternative to conduct electricity, although less efficient.
A large portion of the weeklong conference is devoted to research presentations from industry scientists studying new applications for the red metal, part of a plan to go on the offence against aluminium.
(GRAPHIC - Copper market deficit, https://tmsnrt.rs/2VoIGq5 )
(Reporting by Zandi Shabalala and Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Veronica Brown, Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)