Anglo American goes back to fertilizers with Sirius Minerals’ $527 million buy

Woodsmith Mine’s service shaft. (Image courtesy of Sirius Minerals.)

Anglo American (LON:AAL) is expanding into fertilizers after agreeing to acquire Sirius Minerals (LON:SXX), the British junior struggling to build a huge fertilizer mine beneath a national park, for £405 million ($527m).

As part of the deal, Sirius shareholders will receive 5.5 pence per share in cash, a 34.1% premium to the closing price on Jan. 7, which was the day before Anglo confirmed it was in talks to buy the mine developer. 

The offer values Sirius at just over £400 million, one-third more than the targeted company’s market value by the time it was presented. The firm, however, was worth more than £1.8 billion ($2.3bn) 18 months ago, before its funding plans failed.

Sirius, which is midway through building its Woodsmith fertilizer mine in the North Yorks Moors national park, has seen its share price collapse after warning last September that multibillion-dollar funding for the next stage had fallen through. It warned at the time it only had enough cash to last another six months. 

The $3.8bn Woodsmith project is set to be one of the world’s largest in terms of the amount of resources extracted — around 10 million tonnes per year of polyhalite, a form of potash used in plant fertilizers

The company has already spent £850 million ($1.1bn) developing Woodsmith, but has struggled to secure a further  £2.4 billion ($3.1bn) it needs to turn it into the world’s biggest producer of polyhalite, a multi-nutrient fertilizer.

As a last resource, Sirius launched in November a rescue plan involving the participation of a potential strategic investor and a revised two-stage development plan for the mine.

Anglo seems to be just what Sirius has been waiting for, with the British junior urging shareholders to approve the transaction, which it sees as the “only feasible option” to save its North Yorkshire mine.

Sirius noted it deeply regretted being unable to fund the project alone, but warned shareholders that if they did not accept the deal there was “a high probability that the business could be placed into administration or liquidation within weeks thereafter.”

If all goes well, Anglo’s intervention could save more than 1,000 jobs in one of England’s most underprivileged areas, which goes hand in hand with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to revive poorer regions of the UK.

“We intend to bring Anglo American’s financial, technical and product marketing resources and capabilities to the development of the project, which of course would be expected to unlock a significant and sustained associated employment and economic stimulus for the local area,” Anglo American’s chief executive, Mark Cutifani, said.

Long time coming

Anglo American, which is looking to retreat from thermal coal, has been looking at Sirius as a way to return to the fertilizers market. It noted earlier this month that it had identified the project as being of potential interest “some time ago” due to its quality in terms of scale, resources and costs.

“We are unashamedly transitioning our portfolio to later cycle products that we believe the world will need as it goes forward,” chief financial officer, Stephen Pearce, said on a call with reporters on Jan. 8.

If successful, the takeover would add a second major project to Anglo’s $5bn Quellaveco copper mine in Peru, at a time when most rivals are reluctant to expand.

If successful, Anglo’s intervention could save more than 1,000 jobs in one of England’s most underprivileged areas. It would also add a second major project to its $5bn Quellaveco copper mine in Peru

“We fundamentally believe part of our responsibility is to keep an eye on growth over all the aspects of different time frames,” Pearce added.

The company, however, has noted the bulk of the investment at Sirius will start at the end of 2022, by which time the Peruvian copper mine should be in production.

Analysts, such as Humphrey Knight, senior potash analyst at CRU, consider Anglo’s move risky.

“Sirius’ planned production is around 30 times larger than the total polyhalite market size in 2018. The company’s plan to rapidly increase production to over 10 million tonnes only a few years after starting operations, which adds to concerns of significant disruption to wider fertilizer markets — even with its numerous offtake agreements,” Knight told MINING.COM in September.

He noted that the underlying uncertainties around polyhalite, including potential market size and pricing, remain.

Sven Reinke, senior vice president and lead analyst for Anglo American at Moody’s Investor Service, has said that a successful acquisition of Sirius would increase Anglo’s financial risk profile for a number of years.

“This is driven by the very material capital investment needed over the next few years to complete the Sirius polyhalite mining project,” Reinke wrote.

Ed Sterck, metals & mining analyst at BMO Capital Markets, said in a note to investors earlier this month that, while there are question marks over the nearer-term demand for POLY4, Anglo American was clearly attracted to the scale of the project.

This is how Sirius Minerals plans to extract polyhalite.
This is how Sirius plans to extract polyhalite. (Courtesy of Sirius Minerals.)

“This would certainly be a counter-cyclical investment (for the fertilizer market), but given the extremely long mine life this may present an interesting opportunity in a ‘green’ commodity over the longer term,” Sterck wrote.

BMO expects the potash to remain in oversupply until 2027, meaning that the near-term take-up of what it calls a “commercially unproven alternative” may be limited.

The Woodsmith mine, poised to be one of the world’s largest in terms of the amount of resources extracted, is set to generate an initial 10 million tonnes per year of polyhalite, which contains four of the six key elements needed for plant growth (potassium, sulphur, magnesium and calcium).

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