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Lundin Mining CEO eyes Chile exploration, growth after big M&A bet

By Alexander Villegas

SANTIAGO, April 21 (Reuters) - Lundin Mining Corp , which recently made Chile's first big copper acquisition in nearly a decade, is setting targets for its new Caserones mine and waiting to expand its existing Candelaria mine, its CEO said in an interview.

Following the 2023 World Copper Conference in Santiago this week, Peter Rockandel told Reuters the company is waiting on a permit and some "financial items" to move ahead with an underground expansion for Candelaria.

The expansion will add up to 25,000 tonnes of copper production annually, he said. Candelaria produced 126,300 tonnes in 2022, according to Chile's Cochilco, and Lundin estimates 145,000 to 155,000 tonnes for 2023.

In a vote of confidence in Chile when other mining giants had been holding off on investment, Lundin recently purchased the Caserones mine for $950 million from JX Nippon Mining & Metals. It was the Chilean market's biggest acquisition since 2015 when Antofagasta paid $1 billion for a 50% stake in the Zaldivar mine from Barrick Gold Corp.

"We dedicate a lot of dollars to exploration, we've good a very good team with strong technology and we've been able to identify targets well," Rockandel said, noting that the company has operated in the region for 25 years and understands the geology well.

"So we're going to try to take those learnings from Candelaria and apply it to Caserones," Rockandel said, noting that the company already has a port and a desalination plant in the region that gives Caserones a "huge strategic value."

"There is a huge footprint of about 60,000 hectares in Caserones with a lot of really interesting exploration targets."

No further acquisitions are planned at the moment, he added. "Perhaps down the road there's more M&A possibilities, but right now I think our focus is on maximizing our assets."

Starting new copper projects is tough, Rockandel said, citing factors such as long waits for permits; environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards; a recent decline in ore grades around Chile; and low global copper supply.

"It's getting more challenging bringing new projects on, whether it be from the financial cost, ESG permitting," he said. "So I think the challenge is the supply side. Once we go out one to two years it's going to get very, very difficult."

While companies like BHP have said they would like more stability in Chile before committing to more investment, Rockandel is more optimistic.

He said Lundin's conversations with the government about a

proposed mining royalty

is trending in the right direction. The mining industry claims the new tax burden would hurt companies already struggling to offset a decline in ore grades around the country.

"I think Chile is a good place to operate," Rockandel said, before Chilean President Gabriel Boric spooked mining investors Thursday night by unveiling plans to nationalize its lithium industry over time. "I mean, it's not without its challenges, but that's mining."

Lundin shares fell 2.9% on Friday but remain 22% higher so far this year.

(Reporting by Alexander Villegas; editing by Ernest Scheyder, Christian Plumb and Richard Chang)