Outer Harbour 1, Olympic Dam-Jansen 0: BHP gets final approval for $20 billion iron ore expansion

BHP Billiton's $20 billion-plus  iron ore terminal expansion in Western Australia has cleared the final hurdle after receiving environmental approval from the federal government.

The Australian speculates that there are "growing signs" that Outer Harbour will take precedence over BHP's massive Olympic Dam project quoting a Credit Suisse forecast that the long-awaited approval of the  copper-gold-uranium-silver mine expansion "could be held back until 2014."

The news comes despite an announcement by the state of South Australia yesterday that it will allow BHP to put off a decision on whether it is going ahead with Olympic Dam only until 8 December this year.

If the board of the world's largest miner does not make a decision on the $30 billion project in South Australia's outback by then it would lose all approvals and royalties concessions.

Previously the London and Sydney-listed company said it would decide by mid-year but doubts were raised about the viability of the project when the BHP's chairman confirmed earlier comments from BHP's top execs about scaling back its most ambitious programs saying it will not spend the $80 billion previously set aside for expansion by 2015.

While most analysts expected BHP will continue to pour money into iron ore in Australia and that the board could give Outer Harbour the nod before the end of the year, the even more ambitious Olympic Dam and Jansen potash project in Canada may now be put on the back burner.

But not everyone agrees with that assessment.

Last week the CEO of the so-called Olympic Dam Taskforce, a state official, told a conference that the expansion was "a project with a 100 year mining life, so a glitch this year was unlikely to sway a company that thinks well ahead."

The project is set to become the world's biggest open pit and also includes construction of 270km of powerlines, a 400 km pipeline, a new desalination plant and a 105km railway.

The combined operations would mine 72 Mt ore per year and would produce 750,000 tonnes refined copper, 19,000 tonnes uranium oxide, 800,000 gold ounces and 2.9 Moz of silver per year.

As for the greenfield Jansen project, it was BHP's response to the federal government of Canada's blocking of its takeover bid for Potashcorp of Saskatchewan. The company has already spent $1.2 billion to bring the project to the feasibility stage and has undertaken some construction.

It will also be presented to the board later this year, but given the strong fundamentals in potash, it may stand a better chance of sailing through the approval process.

Production could start as early as 2015. The life of the mine is predicted to be a staggering 70 years.

It is not only BHP investors who are biting their nails over whether Olympic Dam and Jansen are going ahead or not.

MINING.com reported over the weekend that the big miners are playing game of chicken over delaying new supply to the market.

New research shows marginal producers  of iron ore, zinc, thermal coal, ferrochrome, nickel and aluminium can't turn a profit at today's prices and a little help from the market leaders  to prop up prices would be most welcome.

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