How BHP stock could unseat the world's top copper producer

With copper prices surging in 2024, BHP's portfolio of copper mines are in the spotlight.

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BHP Group Ltd (ASX: BHP) stock is best known for its iron ore operations.

And for good reason.

For the half year through to 31 December, the S&P/ASX 200 Index (ASX: XJO) mining giant reported producing 129 million tonnes of the industrial metal, selling this for an average realised price of US$103.70 per wet metric tonne.

Underlying earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) from BHP's iron ore division for the six months came in at US$9.7 billion.

But with copper prices surging in 2024, BHP stock's copper operations have been drawing increasing interest.

For its half-year results (achieved at significantly lower copper prices than today), BHP reported producing 894,000 tonnes of copper and selling it for an average realised price of US$3.66 per pound.

That saw copper deliver underlying EBITDA for the six months of US$3.5 billion.

Copper adding shine to BHP stock outlook

BHP has been upping its copper production, with its Escondida mine in Chile increasing half-year output by 3% to 528,000 tonnes of copper.

And according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Grant Sporre, this ramp-up could see BHP stock unseat Chilean state-owned copper mining company Codelco as the world's number one copper producer.

That forecast is subject to ongoing production ramp-up at Escondida.

Sporre expects the ASX 200 miner will produce 1.44 million tonnes of copper for the year, outpacing his expectations of 1.41 million tonnes of the red metal from Codelco.

And this could come at an opportune time for BHP stockholders, who've watched the share price struggle amid a slumping iron ore price this year.

Unlike iron ore, the price of copper has increased more than 10% so far in 2024. It is currently trading for US $9,418 per tonne.

And the red metal could continue to run hot.

Demand for copper on the up

According to Citi analysts, demand is only set to grow, fuelled by copper's critical role in the global electrification push atop new demand growth from the booming AI industry, which requires support from massive copper-hungry data centres.

Citi's Global Head of Commodities Max Layton's base case scenario (courtesy of The Australian) sees the copper price averaging US$10,000 per tonne in the December quarter and rising to US$12,000 per tonne by 2026.

However, he notes there could be a significantly higher increase in cyclical demand than assumed in his base case, which would offer some welcome tailwinds for BHP stock.

"Explosive price upside is possible over the next two-to-three years too, if a strong cyclical recovery occurs at any time," Layton said.

In this case, the copper price could blow past US$15,000 per tonne or almost 60% above current levels.

Motley Fool contributor Bernd Struben has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia's parent company Motley Fool Holdings Inc. has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.

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