Phased commissioning of the massive US$5.48 ($7.39) billion Cobre Panama copper mine in Panama will commence next year, buoyed by the expectation of key construction milestones being met within just weeks, according to project owner, First Quantum.

Addressing the second day today of the sixth Paydirt Latin America Downunder conference in Perth, First Quantum’s Global Exploration Director, Mike Christie, said construction of Cobre – one of the few new copper mines being built globally – was now about 50 per cent complete.

“We are spending around US$1 ($1.35) billion on the project this year to keep to our 2018 commissioning schedule for the entire operations,” Mr Christie said.

“All seven mills – the largest in the world – and their drives will be installed by mid this year and that’s a key outcome for us.

“Everything about this mine is super scale. Once fully operational the plant will process around 72 million tonnes a year and each of the five pits hosts around one billion tonnes in copper inventory.

“Cobre Panama in any view is a very large project with 3.7 billion tonnes of Measured and Indicated copper resources – more than enough to keep us going on site for 40 years.

“While the deposit is enormous, it is low grade but this project is all about scale and making this project work is helped by economic factors like an extremely low strip ratio and attractive tax regimes in Panama.”

The project is proving an economic boom for Panama, creating 7,000 jobs during construction with 2,500 employees for ongoing mining operations.

Mr Christie said First Quantum expected Cobre Panama to produce around US$2 ($2.70) billion worth of exports per annum for life of mine.

“That’s equivalent to around 4.0 per cent of Panama’s current GDP,” he said.

The new mine will further enhance First Quantum’s rapid rise up the global copper ladder, emerging currently as around the 5th or 6th largest producer in the world.

The Company has two other Latin American copper projects under development – in Peru (Haquira) and Argentina (Taca Taca) – but no preference has yet been given to which will be developed first.