BHP Billiton this week announced approval for the Escondida Ore Access project (EOA), the first of what it calls a number of development options that will underline Escondida’s status as the world’s premier copper operation.

The EOA project will relocate the crushing and conveying facilities currently located inside Escondida’s main pit to improve access to higher grade ore and thereby support higher production from 2013. The project is expected to cost $554 million and will be completed by mid calendar year 2012.

“Escondida has been one of the world’s premier copper mines for more than two decades and our ongoing exploration program suggests the basin retains a number of options for further development,” said Peter Beaven, president-base metals, BHP Billiton. “In addition to this project, we are also studying a number of additional opportunities to improve access to higher grade ore and increase processing capacity over the years to come.”