Is copper the next boom in BC mining exploration? Is copper the next boom in BC mining exploration?

By Theo Yameogo

EY Americas Mining & Metals Leader, EY Canada Mining & Metals Leader

Supporting the readiness and performance of the minerals sector for the energy transition.

5 minute read 5 Mar. 2020
Related topics Mining and metals

The positive momentum gained between 2016 and 2018 flattened out in 2019, with mineral and coal exploration expenditure across British Columbia down less than a percentage point from the previous year, totalling $329m. While gold continues to attract the largest spending, investment focus has shifted to copper.

Following two consecutive years of mining sector exploration growth in British Columbia, 2019 was relatively steady, with exploration expenditure down less than a percentage point from 2018 according to the 2019 British Columbia Mineral and Coal Exploration Survey.

The positive momentum gained between 2016 and 2018 has flattened out, with exploration expenditure shifting across the province’s regions. Investors continued to broaden their focus from gold toward copper, silver and nickel. Exploration spend across the province totalled $329m, almost unchanged from the previous year of $330m but still an increase of 34% from 2017.

Globally, base metals outpaced gold as exploration for precious metal declined. Results in the 2019 survey are consistent with global exploration trends, as gold experienced a decrease, whereas copper and other base metals posted increases. Nationally, Canada’s exploration expenditure slid to fourth in global rankings — behind South America, Australia and Europe/Mainland Asia — for the first time since 2001.

Relative to exploration expenditures across all Canadian provinces, BC saw a decline of 16.8% in exploration expenditure year on year, compared with both Québec and Ontario, which saw declines of 9% and 13%, respectively.1

BC’s exploration sector continued the trend from 2018 with a “commodity refocus,” as investors shifted investment toward copper, silver and nickel deposits. Decreases in gold were offset by increases in copper, whereas declines in coal were balanced by increases in nickel. The Northwest region continued to attract investment, whereas the Southeast experienced the largest decrease. It remains unclear if this is a long-term trend.

In a continuation from previous trends, investment continued to move across the exploration lifecycle, with BC seeing increasing investments in advanced and mine evaluation.

The 2018 “gold rush” sees a shift to copper

The Golden Triangle of northwestern BC continues to attract exploration activity, as investors capitalize on high-grade discoveries supported by investment from major firms, partnerships with Indigenous groups and continued infrastructure development. Survey results reveal the region incurred $180m in exploration expenditure in 2019, a 10% increase over the prior year and more than double 2016 levels.

The Northwest also accounted for 55% of total exploration spend in the province in 2019. However, gold exploration experienced a 39% decline in spending from 2018, with copper exceeding gold exploration and posting an increase of more than 150% from the previous year.

The exploration diversity trend continued in 2019

In 2018, gold accounted for 43% of total exploration expenditures, almost double that of copper. In 2019, investors broadened their focus and shifted spending across commodities, with gold, copper and coal contributing 82% to total spending.

Although much of the increase in diversity can be attributed to copper and nickel exploration in the Golden Triangle, there were also investments in coal projects in the province’s Southeast, Northwest and Northeast regions.

BC poised for a future of diversified metals

In 2019, base metals comprised 39% of total exploration activity, accounting for $143m, an increase of 39% from 2018. Copper was the leading base metal, contributing 72% of total metal spend, up from $79m to $103m, an increase of 31% year on year.

Global demand for base metals has seen a significant increase, likely driven by an increased demand for electric vehicles and green energy.

Despite an uptick in coal exploration in 2018 and optimism surrounding future growth, 2019 saw a 20% decline in investment, with all regions except the Northeast experiencing declines.

Mining lifecycle “reset” complete?

The outlook for the mining and metals sector in BC is largely influenced by the success of early-stage exploration. In 2019, the sector’s reset trend may be complete, as early-stage exploration decreased relative to 2018 levels.

2019 marks the first year that consecutive early-stage exploration has not increased as a share of total exploration. Grassroots and early-stage exploration accounted for 40% of total exploration in 2019 compared with 44% in 2018 and just 14% in 2014, as exploration spend moved to advanced and mine evaluation stages.

Looking forward

Despite flat exploration figures in 2019, a shift in investments toward copper and other base metals provides reason for optimism in BC. Many factors will continue to influence exploration activity in the province in 2020, such as a strengthening of the economy, trends in other resource sectors, global trade tensions, demand for base metals and commodity price volatility.


British Columbia mining exploration expenditures flattened out in 2019 compared with gains that were seen over the past two years. Exploration investment is, however, rising in copper.

About this article

By Theo Yameogo

EY Americas Mining & Metals Leader, EY Canada Mining & Metals Leader

Supporting the readiness and performance of the minerals sector for the energy transition.

Related topics Mining and metals