Western Copper antes up at Casino

Western Copper Corporation is putting the finishing touches on a new prefeasibility study for its monstrous Casino deposit.

Western Copper Corporation is putting the finishing touches on a new prefeasibility study for its monstrous Casino deposit.

The study, to be complete by late March or early April, will update the company’s business case to build a mine at the site, 300 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse.

Western Copper’s last study, in 2008, conveys the massive scale of the project. It projects the mine would cost more than $2 billion to build, employ roughly 650 workers and remain open for three decades.

To put this in perspective, Yukon’s three operating hardrock mines are expected to employ 600 workers when they hit full steam later this year. Casino would more than double that.

This is possible because Casino is believed to hold nearly one billion tonnes of copper, gold and molybdenum. The ore is low-grade, so it would need to be processed at a great volume to be profitable: roughly 35 million tonnes annually.

The company has dribbled out promising updates over the winter.

In January, the company announced it had boosted the expected throughput of a mill at Casino to 120,000 tonnes per day, up 33 per cent, from 90,000 tonnes per day.

And, in November, the company further boosted its resource estimates.

But a big question remains: if Casino is going to be built, who’s going to do it? A Vancouver-based junior like Western Copper can’t do it alone.

It could find a partner with deep enough pockets to build the mine. Or, as usually happens in these circumstances, Western Copper could sell the property to a major copper producer.

Or, Western Copper could hang tight for now, and continue with plans to submit a project application to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board by 2012.

Paul West-Sells, the company’s president and chief operating officer, isn’t showing his cards for now.

“All these options are on the table,” he said.

But, with much of the world’s supply of copper being gobbled up by a metal-hungry China, now’s a pretty good time to be sitting on a giant reserve of the stuff.

Another big question is how Casino will be powered. It’s expected to need a whopping 100 megawatts of energy. By comparison, Yukon Energy’s total generating capacity is 124 megawatts.

“The Yukon grid is unfortunately not an option,” said West-Sells. “There’s just not enough excess energy there.”

The company considered burning coal and diesel, as well as building hydro-dams, wind farms and geothermal taps. But, in the end, it stuck with a plan to power the mine with liquefied natural gas.

It would require 20 trucks a day of this highly-explosive fuel. This could be trucked up from Fort Nelson. Or it could be shipped from Kenai, Alaska, or elsewhere to Skagway, then trucked up.

In the future, if the Alaska Highway Pipeline is ever built, the mine could tap into it. Or, if Northern Cross succeeds in its plans to pump natural gas out of Eagle Plains, this could provide another fuel source.

Western Copper also hasn’t given up hope that it will build a starter mine at its Carmacks deposit. The company is awaiting the results of its court appeal of the Yukon Water Board’s decision to deny the company a licence over concerns the proposed copper heap-leach may spill harmful chemicals into the nearby Yukon River.

A January presentation by the company states it expects to receive a water licence this year. This may be presumptuous. West-Sells offered a more cautious line.

“We’re patiently awaiting a decision from the courts.”

Contact John Thompson at