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Australia clamps down on copper thefts as dizzying rally powers metal to ‘new oil’ status

Australian police charged three building contractors on Tuesday for allegedly stealing copper cables worth more than A$2.5 million (US$1.6 million) as soaring metal prices and a looming supply shortage fuel a lucrative black market for the commodity.

The defendants were accused of selling the pilfered materials to unauthorised scrap metal merchants since February.

Police also found bundles of stolen copper cables at scrapyards and other locations in the greater Sydney area.

The theft case highlights the booming demand for copper after it surged past US$10,000 a tonne for the first time in two years, driven by tightening supply.

Metal-looting is on the upswing globally, thanks to spike in costs particularly of those linked to the green transition such as electric vehicle manufacturing.

Alongside nickel and lithium, copper is used in EV batteries and charging stations. It is also a key component in electrical equipment such as wiring and motors.

Shifting macroeconomic dynamics stemming from global production problems and the rise of the green energy industry have created spectacular volatility in commodity prices in recent times.

Nickel and lithium faced a glut from overproduction as miners over anticipated demand for the metals, causing prices to sink, while copper’s skyrocketed on the back of a projected supply crunch.

The International Copper Study Group has cut its international supply surplus forecast for 2024 to 162,000 tonnes from an earlier surplus of 467,000 tonnes due to lower-than-anticipated refined copper production.

The global copper production market was hit by various disruptions including the closure of the Panamanian Cobre copper mine and operational problems and project hold-ups at Chile’s Codelco, the world’s