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Rumours of a big copper find by mining giant Rio Tinto in the East Pilbara have piqued investor interest in a handful of juniors active in the area.

Industry watchers say speculation has put the Paterson province on the map as an exploration hotspot and is very reminiscent of what happened with the Fraser Range after Sirius Resources made its big Nova-Bollinger discovery, when Independence Group quickly swallowed up Sirius in a $1.8 billion deal.

A year after rumours started emerging about Rio’s (ASX:RIO) copper discovery, aerial images showed a new camp, drill rigs, a helicopter landing site and other infrastructure.

The sudden ramp-up in activity kicked off rumours that Rio is onto something big, but the mining giant is playing its cards close to its chest for now.

The news saw five of the seven juniors active in the area make gains over the past two weeks.

Encounter Resources (ASX:ENR) advanced the most with a 39.5 per cent gain to 6c, followed by Metalicity (ASX:MCT) and Antipa Minerals (ASX:AZY) with more than a 17 per cent advance each.

Here’s a list of ASX stocks with ground in the Paterson province.

Scroll or swipe for full table

ASX codeCompanyTwo-week price changeOne-year price changePrice Nov 14 (intraday)Market Cap
ENR ENCOUNTER RESOUR0.395348837209-0.3103448275860.0615.7M
MCT METALICITY 0.176470588235-0.4594594594590.0210.8M
AZY ANTIPA MINERALS0.176470588235-0.1666666666670.0245.1M
RDM RED METAL 0.047619047619-0.2903225806450.1124.2M
CWX CARAWINE RESOURC0.04761904761900.2212.0M
RIO RIO TINTO 0.001658798009440.06440677966178.5122.5B
SRI SIPA RESOURCES0-0.1666666666670.0113.7M
FMG FORTESCUE METALS-0.0316301703163-0.1793814432993.9813.0B
NCM NEWCREST MINING-0.0320574162679-0.1332476435320.2315.7B
IGO INDEPENDENCE GRP-0.0469483568075-0.1037527593824.062.4B
AYR ALLOY RESOURCES-1-107.9M

Before December last year, Rio had only 1000 sq km of its own land and 1335 sq km with its joint venture with Antipa.

Since then, Rio has increased its own landholding to 11,036 sq km and 1760 sq km with its Antipa JV and another JV it struck with Alloy Resources (ASX:AYR).

Land pegged in the Paterson province. Map courtesy of Antipa Minerals.
Land pegged in the Paterson province. Map courtesy of Antipa Minerals.

Fortescue Metals Group (ASX:FMG) has also joined the party, having no land in the area before December 2017, they now have 5310 sq km.

“[The Paterson province] is hugely prospective of course and we have had a situation where there have been a number of juniors that have been operating there successfully for years,” expert resources analyst Gavin Wendt told Stockhead.

“But the problem has been trying to generate investor interest in a market over recent years that just hasn’t been interested in grassroots exploration.

“The fact that Rio Tinto has come along with their deep pockets and seems to have struck paydirt has obviously provided the right sort of platform for this whole story to now flourish.”

Mr Wendt said the discovery would have to be pretty big for Rio to ramp up activity so drastically.

“To be of interest to them it’s got to be something that’s pretty big to move the meter,” he said.

“So I think the fact that they are committing significant resources to this means that whatever they’ve got there has got to have potential in terms of scale.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Independence Group is on the move again. The $2.5b company was quick to do a deal with Encounter this week to get access to the “Yeneena” copper and cobalt project in the region.

“If nothing else, from the speculative end of the market, companies want to get involved because there’s the potential to generate share price interest,” Mr Wendt said.

“We’ve seen it with other exploration provinces. We’ve seen it with the Fraser Range a few years ago.”

The Creasy connection

Another name that crops up is Mark Creasy, well known for having his foot on some of Western Australia’s most prospective ground.

Antipa acquired some of its ground from Mr Creasy in 2013 and he has taken a stake in the company.

The prospector was a joint venture partner in the Nova-Bollinger project and the Independence-Sirius merger deal earned him a $630 million pay cheque.

He has also done other deals with Independence in the Fraser Range.

This week’s $15m earn-in deal between Independence and Encounter has been welcomed by other juniors because it offers up some competition.

“From a junior’s perspective if it was just Rio going around looking to mop up tenements, you’d be a bit sort of beholden to whatever they were offering if you wanted to get rid of your ground,” David Boyd, the boss of Carawine Resources, told Stockhead.

“But to see IGO in there as well, that generates a bit of competition.

“I think for the junior space it’s quite exciting both in terms of great prospectivity but then also in terms of there’s clearly deals to be done.”

Carawine revealed yesterday it had been granted four exploration licences for its “Paterson” project.

The licences cover an area of 1137 sq km, which Carawine says makes it one of the largest tenement holders in the region in terms of wholly owned land.

The tenements adjoin ground held by Rio and Metals X (ASX:MLX).

Over the next couple of months Carawine will review historical exploration data to generate drill targets. The company’s goal is to start drilling by the next field season, which begins in late March.

Carawine has received a bit of a value lift in the past couple of weeks, with its share price adding nearly 5 per cent to trade at 22c.

Antipa, meanwhile, has been active in the Paterson for the past seven years and counts Rio as its partner on its Citadel gold and copper project.

Chairman Stephen Power told Stockhead Rio’s alleged big find could see the major ramp up activity on Antipa’s ground.

“It’s joint ventured and they have the ability to drive what happens, but I would expect that it would be natural that we would see an increasing exploration effort on the joint venture ground because it simply makes sense,” he said.

“We haven’t set the exploration program and budget for next year or anything but it just seems to me to be as night follows day.”

Mr Power said the news of a possible big discovery was exactly what was needed to drive interest in the Paterson province.

“We’ve been there, we’ve been beating this drum, but basically we were right in that it will deliver a tier one asset, at least one, and it will deliver a lot more,” he said.

Antipa controls 5500 sq km of ground, extending to within 3km of Newcrest’s Telfer gold mine — which has been operating for 40 years and started with 32 million ounces of gold and 1 million tonnes of copper.

Rumble Resources (ASX:RTR) recently beat Rio Tinto to some 1375 sq km of ground between Telfer and Metals X’s Nifty copper mine.

Rumble Resources' Lamil project in the Paterson province.
Rumble Resources’ Lamil project in the Paterson province.

Sipa Resources (ASX:SRI), Red Metal (ASX:RDM) and Metalicity also have ground in the Paterson province.

Metalicity’s share price rocketed nearly 60 per cent on Tuesday after it revealed it acquired ground next to Rio and Fortescue in the Paterson province.