World's largest coal company muscling in on world's largest metallurgical deposit

Shenhua Energy, China's largest coal producer, on Monday said it expects to restart talks with the Mongolian government over the Tavan Tolgoi coal field after June elections.

The Tavan Tolgoi deposit – mined since the 60s – in the South Gobi desert is the world’s largest high-quality coking coal used in steelmaking.

Earlier this month Mongolia stopped all talks with international miners on developing the western Tsankhi block of Tavan Tolgoi which on its own holds 1.2 billion tonnes after a shambolic bidding process that stretches back as far as 2007.

"Shenhua is the most competitive bidder for the project given its technology, transport infrastructure, access to the Chinese market and the backing of the Chinese government," Shenhua CEO Ling Wen told reporters.

Shenhua is the world's largest coal company with 167,000 employees and 53 operating mines producing 282 million tonnes per year. The state-owned firm's financial results released on Friday showed net profits of $7.2 billion for 2011.

High quality metallurgical coal has been trading at around the $220–$235 per tonne level since January 2012, down from record levels of $330/tonne last year and quality deposits have become harder to come by.

Reuters reports "Shenhua is scouring the world for other asset buys and is in talks to buy coal mines in North America, Africa, Australia and Indonesia."

Shenhua has long shown interest in Mongolia. In 2009, the company started building an Inner Mongolia railroad line from the coal-belt city Baotou to the Mongolian border 180 kilometers from Tavan Tolgoi.

Mongolia is walking a diplomatic tightrope with Tavan Tolgoi. Aside from from closer ties with China it wants to use the project to strengthen its longtime political and cultural links with Russia and at the same time make room for the US as a geopolitical balancer in Asia.

Mongolia’s National Security Council rejected a development deal struck with US giant Peabody Energy, Shenhua and a Russian-Mongolian consortium mid-September 2011, just two months after they were announced as winners.

At the time losing bidders from Brazil, India and South Korea raised serious concerns and Japan went so far as to call the bidding process ‘extremely regrettable’.

Last week KORES, a consortium of South Korean companies, said it wants at least a 10% stake, a larger stake than the government previously awarded to a Russia-Mongolia consortium.

Mongolia also still hopes to privatize its Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi coal-mining company which controls the remainder of the 6 billion tonne resource.

The country hopes to raise as much as $3 billion, putting the valuation for the company at $15 billion through a listing in London, Ulan Bator and Hong Kong.

Apart from the looming elections that has prompted investor uncertainty, the difficulties in Hong Kong (the stock exchange does not count Mongolia as one of the 20 jurisdictions from where it accepts listings from) Mongolian laws also need to be changed for a local listing of Erdenes-TT, as the company will be known.

The privatization process will see Mongolia’s government holding a majority 51% stake after selling 19% to investors and distributing the remainder to its 2.7 million citizens although the exact ratios still needs to be ironed out and will also require changes to Mongolian laws.

Current prime minister Sukhbaatar Batbold’s Mongolian People’s Party promised $750 (a cool million in the local currency, the tugrik) in cash to all of Mongolia’s adult citizens during the last election that put him in power.

Some politicians are demanding that Mongolia develop West Tsankhi itself echoing calls from lawmakers last year that Mongolia get a bigger slice of Ivanhoe Mines’ Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine.

Tavan Tolgoi is the second largest mining investment in Mongolia behind Oyu Tolgoi. In October Ivanhoe and partner Rio Tinto dodged a bullet when the Mongolian government said it was rethinking a 2009 deal that gave Ivanhoe Mines and Rio Tinto a 66% stake in Oyu Tolgoi and that it wanted half of the $6 billion project, already more than 70% built.