SANTIAGO, Chile, Apr 18, 2012 (Dow Jones) -- After focusing for years on its domestic operations, Chilean state copper giant Codelco has begun to explore for copper elsewhere in the region.
The company formally known as Corporacion Nacional del Cobre de Chile has a $127 million exploration budget for 2012 and 2013, and 33% of that investment is earmarked for exploration abroad.
The company has been exploring for copper in Brazil in recent years and in 2011 signed a four-year exploration agreement with Ecuador's Empresa Nacional de Mineria, or Enami EP.
As two of Codelco's biggest mines, Chuquicamata and El Teniente, are more than a century old and ore grades--or the amount of copper contained in the mined material--continue to drop, the company is always seeking new deposits.
Codelco will remain focused on its Chilean operations, "but we should have some presence abroad," Chief Executive Diego Hernandez said in an interview with Dow Jones Newswires during the CESCO copper industry week here.
In Ecuador, Codelco is exploring several sites for copper and possibly gold. If these prospects are viable, Codelco and Enami could set up joint ventures to develop the finds.
In Brazil, the company is exploring "a couple of targets" that look promising, Hernandez said.
Colombia, meanwhile, is looking to develop a mining industry to tap into its mineral resources, that nation's deputy mining minister, Henry Medina, said during a presentation at a CESCO exploration conference earlier in the week.
Codelco, Hernandez said, also is looking at Colombia as the government will begin granting concessions for greenfield explorations. "We're looking at geological data in Colombia and will probably begin drilling in 2013," Hernandez said.
The executive noted that Mexico could also be an interesting country to explore for copper.
He said that while Peru also has interesting copper deposits, Codelco hasn't ventured into the neighboring country as its mining industry is already well developed. "It makes it more difficult for newcomers to join," he said.
But exploration ventures today won't turn into mines for at least a decade, he said. "It takes about 10 years to go from exploration to production if you're successful," the executive said.
Codelco currently produces around 1.7 million metric tons of copper a year. It is seeking to expand that output to about 2 million tons by the end of this decade through expansions at existing mines and bringing new mines in Chile on line.