Fortescue confirms bid for vast Simandou iron ore deposit

Simandou deposit, Guinea. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto.)

Australia’s Fortescue Metals Group (ASX:FMG) has confirmed its interest in a slice of the giant Simandou iron ore deposit, handed back this year to the Guinean government by billionaire Beny Steinmetz’s BSG Resources.

The committee in charge of an international tender for the project’s blocks 1 and 2, launched in mid-July, should come to a final decision in November, sources close to the matter told Reuters.

Both the consortium of Société Miniere de Boke (SMB) and Singapore’s Winning, which is Guinea’s biggest bauxite exporter, have already acknowledged they submitted an offer.

Brazil’s Vale (NYSE: VALE), the world’s largest producer of iron ore, is also said to have paid for documents needed to submit an offer, but decided not to do so.

Simandou is one of the world’s richest reserves of high-grade iron ore, holding an estimated 2 billion tonnes of the steelmaking ingredient

At two billion tonnes of iron ore with some of the highest grades in the industry, Simandou is one of the world’s biggest and richest reserves of the steelmaking material, but it has a controversial past.

For more than a decade, it was the centre of a bitter dispute that involved Rio Tinto, Brazil’s Vale SA and Israeli diamond mining tycoon Beny Steinmetz.

In 2008, one of Guinea’s former dictators stripped Rio’s rights over two of the four blocks the deposit had been divided on and handed them BSG Resources, Steinmetz’s mining arm. Rio was able keep to the two southern blocks, but only after paying $700 million to the government in 2011. That guaranteed the miner tenure for the lifetime of the Simandou mine.

That deal came under scrutiny in 2016, forcing Rio to fire two senior managers over a questionable $10.5 million payment made to a consultant who helped the company secure the two blocks and alerted authorities, including the US Department of Justice and the UK’s Serious Fraud Office.

BSG Resources and Steinmetz were also subject of several investigations over bribery and corruption accusations, but it was able to put an end to all that in February this year, through a deal with Guinean President Alpha Conde.

Fortescue confirms bid for vast Simandou iron ore deposit

As part of the agreement with Guinea, BSGR agreed to walk away from blocks 1 and 2 of the Simandou project, but retained the right to mine the smaller Zogota deposit.

A few weeks later, a London arbitral court told BSGR to pay $1.2 billion to Vale, its former partner Guinea, due to “fraud and breaches of warranty” in inducing the Brazilian miner to enter the joint venture. The tribunal based its decision partly on the fact that the government revoked the concession in 2014 after finding that BSGR had obtained it by bribing officials.

Tender transparency questioned

Strong iron ore prices and the resolution of Steinmetz-related issues increased Guinea’s chances of finding companies interested in acquiring the rights for the vacant blocks, pushing it to launch a tender.

But analysts, including Eric Humphery-Smith from Verisk Maplecroft, have called the transparency of the process into question.

One of the main reasons, argues Humphery-Smith, is that prospective developers had to pay $300,000 to access tender specification documents.

Simandou is also one of the most easily exploitable iron ore fields outside of Australia’s Pilbara region

“Such pay-to-play terms undermine the Minister’s claims of transparency,” Humphery-Smith says.

The experts notes that while it’s true that the current process is more transparent than the first-come, first-served method, bidders may still be exposed to reputation risks:

“There are indications that the British law firm Phanar Legal Ltd, selected as the third-party transaction adviser for the tender, may have a conflict of interest. The firm’s director Philip Rogers is a co-director of Guinea Bauxite Corporation Ltd (GBC), a mining company established in January 2019 by Alexander Zotov, a Russian businessman. Zotov holds an active production licence for a bauxite mine in coastal Guinea through his mining company Eurasian Resources (EAR).

“Even if Rogers acts only as a secretary for these companies, his active interest in the Guinean mining sector leads one to question his law firm’s impartiality in the Simandou tendering process. In other words, Phanar’s management of the tender could lead the contracting authorities to look favourably on a prospective bid by one of Zotov’s companies for another mine concession.”

Rio Tinto holds a 45% stake in blocks three and four of Simandou, which it is actively planning to develop. State-controlled Chinalco owns 40% and the Guinea government 15%.  Fortescue Metals Group is the world’s No. 4 iron ore miner.

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