Flash News: Major Events

2 02 2011

Less than a year after the Upper Big Branch accident, Massey Energy is set to be acquired by Alpha Natural Resources. Mineweb

Rejoice! The 18-month strike at Vale’s Voisey’s Bay operations is over. Mineweb

The Russians were right. Guinea is seeking to double its share in mining projects to bring it to at least 30 per cent. It is however taking 20% in Rio Tinto, Chinalco and the IFC’s Simandou iron ore project. Mining Weekly

Mongolia is implementing a law regulating nuclear energy. Uranium exploration will begin in 2012 and according to the Prime Minister will be the most ambitious mining venture after the Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi projects. Talking about the later, the bid to develop about half of this coking coal deposit recently wrapped up – 15 bidders have shown interest.

The European Union still très féroce on securing rare earths. Reuters


The Unholy Art of Spin

13 04 2010

Last Monday’s explosion in West Virginia Upper Big Branch coal mine in which 29 out of the 31 miners present at the mine died has been the deadliest since the 1970s. Records of pervasive safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine emerged. The heat is on for Massey Energy, the owner of the mine.

Amid flags raised at half-staff in the state of West Virginia, pleas for both answers and more stringent safety standards have been made. The industry felt compelled to unfold its crisis management strategy as greater stringency in mine safety requirements could have for effect of eroding bottom lines in the entire industry.

Strangely, in the realm of crisis management the U.S. coal industry and the Catholic Church were taking cues from the same PR handbook. I collected a number of statement made in connection with the Upper Big Branch disaster in order to apply what Maureen Dowd’s column “Should There Be an Inquisition for the Pope?” established as the 6-step unholy art of spin.

“First: Declare any new revelation old and unimportant”

Don Blakenship, CEO of Massey Energy, was prompt to inform the public that safety violations in coal mines are part of the lifestyle. In an interview on April 6th he said: “I mean violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process. You have inspections every day and it’s hard to differentiate sometimes between head count or number counts of violations and the seriousness or type of it.”

“Second: Blame Somebody Else –even if it’s the pope’s popular predecessor, on the fast track to sainthood.

Let’s leave the former pope out of this. There is a wave of finger-pointing going on. Who’s responsible? Dead miners? The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)?

In the same aforementioned interview, Don Blakenship said: [Upper Big Branch] was a mine that had violations. I think the fact that MSHA and the state and our firebosses and the best engineers you can find were all in and order this mine and all believed it was safe speaks for itself. None of these groups would have allowed this mine to operate had it been unsafe“. So in the end, the miners, the engineers and the MSHA were wrong about their assumptions. It’s not the company’s fault for pulling an Alan Greenspan either.

Miners however have blamed the Mine Safety and Health Administration for using timidly the powers that it has.

Third : Say Black is White

Rather than reiterating that safety violations in coal mine are a way of life Massey Energy has been trying to defend its safety record in a SEC Filing saying ” We do not condone any violation of MSHA regulations, and we strive to be in compliance with all regulations at all times“. “Most of the citations issued by MSHA to [Upper Big Branch] in the last year were resolved on the same day they were issued.” In fact, despite 20 employees killed at mines operated by Massey Energy [or contractors and subsidiaries], the lost-time incident rate is better a Massey.

“Fourth: Demonize gays, as Karl Rove did in 2004.”

This one does not apply.

“Fifth: Blame the victims”

See second item.

“Sixth: Throw gorilla dust”

In this case, the dust glitters. Here’s a quote from a New York Times article.

While blaming the U.S administration of reacting hysterically to the Upper Big Branch accident, Bill K. Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association stated that “750 people die each year in the U.S from eating bad or ruined potato salad? Do you think we could get some new laws put on the books to control these deaths?

Flash News! Update on U.S Coal, Mongolia & [lots of other things]

16 02 2010

I’ve been falling behind schedule but still let me update on recent posts in order to all keep you freshly informed.

Iron Ore. The survival of the benchmark system (i.e. annual price setting process) has been questioned since last year as painful negotiations has led the Chinese to purchase iron ore on spot markets. BHP Billiton has been pushing in favour of an overhaul of the benchmark system to better reflect spot prices and its chief executive Marius Klopper previously stated that the miner would not sign any new volumes to contracts set through annually produced pricing. BHP’s quest is gathering speed as Brazilian giant Vale also concurred saying it, too, was open to spot-market trading especially as spot prices are twice the current benchmark prices. In the interim, BHP has approached Japanese steel mills with the possibility to shift to quarterly pricing.

In the last steel update, I have reported on market research foreseeing a 40% increase in iron ore prices. It seem a 40% rise would only be a provisional arrangement and an annual price agreement, if any, would be closer to a 80% for the 2010-2011 delivery period.

Coal in the U.S. In the entry on the U.S. Budget proposal, I have warned of the backlash that the decision to repeal corporate income tax exemptions for the coal, oil and gas industries would unleash. Shortly after the publication of the Budget, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia complained about the inconsistency of such message regarding the future of coal and warned that this announcement could lead producers to reduce their output. He based his critique on the absence of wording related to other measures already established in support of coal production and recent US EPA action regarding mountain-top removal.

Mongolia. Last week the country cancelled the Tavan Tolgoi auction and decided to retain 100% of the deposit. As mentioned in a post in October, Tavan Tolgoi is the world’s largest undeveloped coal deposits. Intense pressures from China and Russia to acquire stakes in the deposits have influenced Mongolia’s decision. It has been reported that the company could be considering hiring a contract mining company to develop the deposit. The Tavan Tolgoi project has historically been considered too big for a single company to develop and mine. Still the Financial Times suggested Australian contract miner Leighton may be hired to develop Tavan Tolgoi while retaining full state ownership of the huge coalfield.

OSISKO has recently provided an update reserve and resource estimate for its Malartic project. This new estimate is based on the combined, previously-reported resources of the Canadian Malartic and South Barnat deposits. The resource estimated at 6.28 million onces in proven and probable reserves when I first wrote about Osisko has been increased to 8.97 million ounces which has for effect of increasing the mine life by 25%. The press release is available here.


14 10 2009

Everywhere governments are trying to harness the wealth that their natural resources produce for the benefit of their citizens. Many countries have ventured in the iterative process that is finding the adequate combination of royalties, attractive corporate income tax rates, windfall taxes, tax credits and holidays to attract foreign direct investment while at the same time fulfilling their social commitments. Mongolia set in 2006 a windfall tax to benefit from the high prices of copper and gold to meet its development agenda. The 68% windfall tax severely deterred foreign investment to the extent that investment projects championed by foreign companies were simply abandoned.

With the price of most commodities bottoming earlier this year the country is finding itself on fiscally shaky grounds as it faces an expected deficit of US $80 million. With the mining industry accounting for 33 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2007, it is no wonder why only a few months after the presidential election the country has taken bold and swift steps to address the fiscal and legislative bottlenecks hindering investment in the mining industry. On August 25th, Mongolia officially became a hot property as the country repealed its damaging windfall tax and reviewed key legislative items.

Due to the immense untapped potential of Mongolia, analysts have been prompt to advertise the country as an imminent candidate for double-digit GDP growth and even alluded to the country taking Qatar’s position as the world’s fastest growing economy. While projects are unfolding at an incredible pace in comparison to previous years’ standstill, one wonders if mining projects have the potential to be drivers of economic development for Mongolia. Below is a review of projects currently being championed by the industry and government.

Flagship project: Oyu Tolgoi

Ivanhoe Mines LTD is probably the company that has the most to rejoice over as it has been working towards the exploitation of the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold deposit since 2001. In the past weeks, Mongolia’s government has focused on fast-tracking this project.

Oyu Tolgoi is the world’s largest undeveloped deposit. It is estimated to contain 79 billion pounds of copper and 45 million ounces of gold. It is the new Escondida. The mining complex would support operations for 60 years however as resources keep being delineated Ivanhoe expressed confidence that the deposit would still be in operations in a hundred years (yep this came with the usual disclaimer about forward looking statements). The initial investment for this project is of US $4 billion. The mining complex is expected to be fully operational by 2013. As part of the agreement reached with between the Ivanhoe Mines LTD and the Mongolian government, the company has been granted with 30 years of stable tax rates and regulatory provisions which can be extended for a further 20 years. The government has taken a 34% interest through the state-owned company Erdenes MGL which will have three directors of the board.

Oyu Tolgoi could raise Mongolia’s GDP by more than a third. However this is unlikely to shore up the Government’s financial position in the short term and medium term. Due to the 10% investment tax credit granted by the government, the project is very likely to be a tax expenditure until the mine is fully operational in 2013. By then the company will start to have taxable income but in the meantime little revenue outside excise and sales tax will be available for social expenditures. While one can assume that economic spinoffs and spill over effect associated with this project will be considerable- work previously carried on the deposit has employed more than 4000 Mongolians and sourced goods and services from about 500 local businesses- one can also wonder if it has the potential to overheat the economy. More about the agreement can be found here.

This project is very promising. Rio Tinto who previously owned a 9.9% interest in Ivanhoe increased it stake in Ivanhoe to 19.7%. Under an established agreement between the two companies, Rio Tinto could increase its stake in Ivanhoe to up to 43.1% over the next two years. More on this here.

Second best: Tavan Tolgoi

With Oyu Tolgoi being close to a done deal the Government is reviewing the ownership agreement in relation to the development of Tavan Tolgoi, a coking coal deposit in the Gobi Desert whose development has been delayed for years. The deposit holds a coal reserve of 6.5 billion tonnes and its value is estimated at $2 billion. The Government has selected JPMorgan and Deutsche Bank to proceed to the sale of a 49 per cent stake in the mine. Mongolia is contemplating splitting Tavan Tolgoi coal deposit for to allow many companies rather a single bidder to take a stake in the mine. The need to satisfy multiple political allegiances is apparently the rationale behind this decision. This will have for effect of further complicating and slowing down the bidding process as two or three options are being studied to split the main deposit.

Potential bidders were expected to be China Shenhua Energy (a likely preferred bidder if one does not take in account Mongolia’s unease with the idea of being too dependant of China), Japan’s Itochu Corporation and Peabody. BHP Billiton, who previously held rights to the project in the 1990s, has withdrawn its offer. The successful sale of Tavan Tolgoi could hand Mongolia between $1 and $2 billion, plus ongoing revenues from its majority stake in the mine.

Dornod Uranium Project

Khan Resources, a Canadian company, has been seeking the renegotiation of its contract. Khan is in a joint venture with Russian State-owned Company JSC Priargunsky and the Mongolian government, for the exploration and development of the Dornod uranium project. With new laws taking effect, Khan is seeking to re-register mining and exploration license for the asset and also seek clarification of what level of ownership the government should have.

The Dornod project is expected to have a mine life of 15 years, and could produce an average of three-million pounds of the nuclear fuel, at $23.22/lb. The government of Mongolia could receive some $464-million in royalties and corporate income taxes, according to a feasibility study released in March.

Transformation vs Stagnation?

” Mongolia will generate the highest rate of growth of GDP of any country in the world over the next 10 years, surpassing that of Qatar, which had fulfilled that role over the past decade and a half,” said John Finigan, CEO of Mongolia’s Golomt Bank. “This is transformational.”

Will it really be transformational? All of aforementioned projects will lead to money pouring into Mongolia. To bring about change, it is estimated that several years of double digit billion USD investments will be needed. Mongolia’s potential at attracting such a heavy load of foreign investment could be impaired by the west perception of Mongolia as instable. The shadow of past and future relations with Russia and China, corruption within the country (Transparency International ranks Mongolia 102nd on its corruption perception index), the lack of funds to build the necessary infrastructure for resources to be exploited and the eviction of western investments in the recent past are all risks that need to be weighted. Last June, Centerra Gold’s licenses to the Boroo Mine have been revoked and operations halted after the government decided that it was not getting enough benefits from the development of the property. The licenses have since been reinstated.

Will the country be any better off once these projects get on stream? The general population is not likely to be feeling the benefits in the short term but could in the mid-term see some form of betterment, at least on paper. As for long term prospects it will all depend on the government playing its cards wisely to address the boom and bust commodity cycles. To that end, a budget stabilisation plan like those in place in Chile and Russia could be of use. However, with corruption widespread in Mongolia a vicious cycle of corruption, inequality and inefficiency could also be materializing. World Bank officials estimate Mongolia’s economy would grow 2-3 per cent this year, rising to 5-7 per cent or more next year.

Less coal more cool

6 10 2009

Coal is controversial. Its place as part of countries’ energy mixes (from heavy to marginal reliance), mountaintop removal, and approvals of new coal fired plants haven given rise to much debate. I like to think that when it comes to coal less is more and for that specific reason signs of the demise of coal or at least the struggles of the industry are always pleasant to notice. Last week the sweet treat came courtesy of the US EPA who delayed 79 coal mining permits in four Appalachian states for mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop removal is the surface mining of coal using explosives to remove up to 300 vertical meters at a top of a mountain to expose the coal seams. This method is usually seen as a productive and economic way to mine coal as the output per worker per hour more than doubles in comparison to underground coal mining. It is also safer for workers but the benefits of surface coal mining end there. At the environmental level, the impacts of mountaintop removal are offsetting the economic benefits. Due to excess rock and soil being dumped into “valley fills”, water is contaminated in the process and substantial deforestation takes place. A study has shown that measures undertaken to mitigate the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal have little effect in reducing environmental damage. It is summarized here.

The mining permits delayed this week were delayed due to uncertain compliance with the US Clean Water Act. EPA stated in a letter that the applications have not yet adequately demonstrated that anticipated adverse environmental and water quality impacts have been fully avoided and minimized since more than 80% of the permits “exhibited the potential to cause or contribute to violations of applicable water quality standards”. The EPA required additional information regarding potential cumulative impacts as well as an assessment of the effectiveness of existing mitigation plans to compensate for anticipated loss of functions associated with the burial and mine through of headwater streams. If projects were approved as currently envisioned a total of 170 miles of streams would be buried under mine waste.

At the community level, the coal industry has been pretty swift in to taking the jobs and energy security rhetoric in reaction to the EPA’s announcements of delays. West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney said in a statement that “They don’t understand why Washington is willing to kill-off good paying jobs when our economy is still on the ropes and the unemployment rate is still unacceptably high”. This one sentence sums up well the reluctance of the industry to acknowledge the environmental challenges ahead of mankind. At least this time the industry made it without slamming climate change science. Perhaps the US coal industry could take note of the Dalai Lama’s comment when asked about the development of the oilsands:
In a choice between “destruction of environment or losing money, then we have to choose losing money.”

There are conflicting regulatory measures in the US regarding the disposal mine waste as, since 2001, tailings are considered to be fill material and can now be placed legally in a waterway and since December 2008 mining waste can be put directly into headwater waterways. The Clean Water Protection Act, being debated in Congress, would review the definition of fill material to exclude mining waste and would therefore forbid the disposal of tailings in waterways. Until this comes into force, one can only find comfort in the fact that some US utilities companies are shifting away from coal-fired power generation due to the US progressing towards a cap and trade. This is the case of the Arizona Public Service, the NV Energy, PNM Resources as well as California’s Pacific Gas and Electric (if I am not mistaken California aims to have a coal-free energy mix)

P.S. Browsing the web for this post, I found a lot of information on Coal Tattoo, a blog hosted on the Charleston Gazette’s website. It’s now on the blogroll.