Iron ore price: Beijing bets $5B on stranded Pilbara deposits

Port Hedland, the world’s busiest iron ore export terminal. Image: Pilbara Ports Authority

Worries about the longer term supply picture for the iron ore market resurfaced on Friday after the announcement of a high-profile infrastructure deal between China and Australia.

The Northern China import price of 62% Fe content ore fell again on Friday to trade at $84.40 per dry metric tonne, capping a terrible week that saw the price of steelmaking raw material slide 8.6% according to data supplied by The Steel Index.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed a deal in Canberra on Friday which will see China’s state-owned infrastructure company spend A$6 billion
(US$4.6 billion) to build a port at Balla Balla in the nortwest of the country and a 160km railway to a new mine to be constructed in the heart of the Pilbara region.

The project which already has environmental approval and is being advanced by Flinders Mines, controlled by New Zealand conglomerate Todd, will see the construction of a 6m–10m tonnes per year mine starting as early as next year. The project boasts resources of more than 1 billion tonnes and overal production of 250m tonnes grading 58.5% Fe.

China forges as much steel as the rest of the world combined and is dependent on iron ore imports for more than 80% of its needs

But the proposed port located between Hedland and Cape Lambert export terminals used by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton could eventually add some 50m tonnes per year to the seaborne trade by unlocking vast stranded deposits of iron ore further inland.

China forges as much steel as the rest of the world combined and is dependent on iron ore imports for more than 80% of its needs. The country dominates the 1.3 billion tonne seaborne iron ore market as imports supplant its domestic mining industry which struggles with low-grade high cost production.

Policies to clean up and consolidate the domestic steel industry is also playing into the hands of iron ore miners elsewhere with low grade furnaces – particularly those that use scrap – being forced out of business.

Authorities are also clamping down on pollution from sintering plants, a necessary extra step when using low grade ore (domestic Chinese iron content averages only about 20%) to make steel.

In October Rio Tinto sold its stake in Guinea’s Simandou iron ore to its Chinese partner Chinalco, potentially opening up a new path to development for the $20 billion project which would add as much as 100m tonnes of premium grade to the market each year.

Iron ore price: Chinese back $5 billion Bala Bala port Pilbara

Image: Flinders Mines


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