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Copper producers are counting on new projects to meet shortages they forecast arriving near the end of the decade.

CHRIS RATCLIFFE/BLOOMBERG

The $149-billion (U.S.) pipeline to expand the world's copper supply is running into trouble.

Producers are counting on expansions and the development of new operations to meet supply shortages they forecast arriving toward the end of the decade.

The plans are fraying as reluctant lenders, political wrangling, technical obstacles and a lack of water and electricity push back project deadlines from Papua New Guinea to Peru.

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Only six major projects to build new copper mines or expand existing operations will be completed by 2020, with two of that total still at risk of potential delays, according to researcher CRU Group. That compares with a global slate of about 80 planned developments, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

Freeport-McMoRan Inc., the largest publicly listed copper producer, forecasts an end to the metal's current surplus from next year as demand improves and output drops. Chile's state-owned Codelco, the top producer, is predicting a deficit by 2018, while BHP Billiton Ltd., operator of the world's biggest copper mine, sees a shortage from 2019.

"Our project pipeline has thinned considerably over the last year as we have factored in further delays," said Christine Meilton, principal consultant on copper supply and raw materials at CRU in London. While the industry is confident about an emerging deficit, it remains difficult to raise finance for projects as low prices deter investors, she said.

Global production exceeded demand in five of the past six years, partly because of slower growth in China, the biggest user, data by Bloomberg Intelligence show. Copper has tumbled more than 50 per cent on the London Metal Exchange from a record $10,190 a tonne in 2011, touching close to a seven-year low of $4,318 a tonne in January. Macquarie Group Ltd. last month cut its price forecasts by 4.1 per cent to $4,690 a tonne for this year and 9 per cent to $4,788 for 2017.

As a result, capital spending by 35 major producers will shrink to about $41-billion next year, down from $104-billion in 2013, and mine output last year tumbled by more than 20 per cent, company data compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence show. Even with a project pipeline with forecast capital expenditure of about $149.4-billion, according to the data, the mining industry faces challenges to deliver new supply in time to meet the deficit.

Rio Tinto Group's $5.8-billion expansion of Mongolia's Oyu Tolgoi won't be completed until 2027, while BHP, the world's largest mining company, says it will be "a little bit late to the party" under a plan for a major expansion at Australia's largest copper mine from about 2025, the site's asset president, Jacqui McGill, said in May.

"The mid-2020s is when we are targeting," Justin Bauer, BHP's head of resource planning and development for Olympic Dam, said in an interview. "We'd like to find a way to expand it and find a viable way for quite a large expansion. A cheaper way of processing ore is a really important step for us."

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