Mongolia opens new door to world’s richest coking coal fields

A new way to own the globe's richest coking coal fieldsCompanies building roads, railways, dams and electricity infrastructure around the world’s richest coking coal fields will be able to swap their investments for equity (or just plain coal).

Mongolia is desperate to turn around the slump in its economic growth and the steep fall-off in foreign investment.

The numbers certainly are ugly.

Foreign direct investment in the country dropped 17% to $3.9 billion in 2012.

This year it’s even worse with the Asian nation attracting a full $1 billion or 42% less during the first half of 2013.

While the stalled $6.6 billion underground development of Oyu Tolgoi, the massive Rio Tinto copper-gold mine that shipped its first copper last month, is a huge issue, Mongolia’s woes are mostly coal-related.

After a more than 20% drop during the first half of the year, met coal prices used in steelmaking have recently improved, but at around $150 a tonne, is still close to marginal costs for the land-locked country. And a long ways away from the $330 a tonne hit in 2011.

The price of thermal coal is approaching global financial crisis levels, recently falling to below $80 for the first time since October 2009 and down from around $100 at the start of the year.

At the same time Mongolian coal exports to China, which buys 9 out of every 10 tonnes have plummeted, to $542 million compared to $1 billion worth during the first half of 2012.

Mongolia now only makes up 17% of Chinese imports, while Australia has made the most of the drop-off, supplying 38% of China’s total imports.

Investors have been thinking twice about committing money after China’s state-owned Aluminum Corp’s bid for coal producer SouthGobi Resources was blocked by Mongolian authorities.

To stem this negative tide Mongolia is considering drastic changes to its foreign ownership laws of its resources.

It is also relaunching talks with international miners on developing the western block of Tavan Tolgoi in the South Gobi desert, the world’s largest deposit of high-quality coking coal.

State-owned Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi coal-mining company controls the main block of the 6.4 billion tonnes deposit that has been mined since the 1960s, but the Tsankhi section which is being offered to foreigners on its own holds some 1.2 billion tonnes.

Mongolia struck a deal with US giant Peabody Energy, China’s Shenhua and a Russian-Mongolian consortium in July 2011, only to cancel the whole process two months later.

The much-vaunted multi-billion dolloar IPO of Tavan Tolgoi which was first mooted more than five years ago also remains on ice, but now Bloomberg reports, Prime Minister Norovyn Altankhuyag is offering foreign investors a new way into Tavan Tolgoi.

The Tavan Tolgoi area lacks the roads and railways needed to economically deliver the coal to markets. It also lacks the power and water supplies to support big mining camps.

Mongolia is proposing to offer stock in Tavan Tolgoi to foreign investors in power, rail and water projects around the basin, Altankhuyag said:

Companies that build the infrastructure at Tavan Tolgoi, which has reserves of more than 6.4 billion metric tons, will later have the chance to swap their investments for equity in the mine, Altankhuyag said. Investors may also choose to get paid in coal, he said.

Image by Journeyman Pictures