Rio Tinto to keep New Zealand aluminum smelter until 2024

NZAS can continue operating the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter until December 31, 2024. (Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

Rio Tinto (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO) said on Thursday it had inked a power deal with New Zealand’s Meridian Energy, which will allow the miner to keep its aluminium smelter in the country running until December 2024.

The world’s second largest mining company had said in July it would close this year New Zealand’s Aluminium Smelter (NZAS), the country’s single largest power user, due to high costs and a weak market.

The decision has been widely criticized by politicians and local power firms, as it would leave more than 1,000 people unemployed. NZAS is also the country’s top electricity consumer, using roughly 13% of the nation’s power supply.

Thursday’s announcement delays the likely closure of the smelter, at the bottom of the South Island, by at least three years.

Rio noted that talks with the government to address the smelter’s high transmission costs were ongoing.

“The extension provides certainty to employees, the local community and customers while providing more time for all stakeholders to plan for the future,” Rio said in a media statement.

Ongoing talks

Energy Minister Megan Woods and Finance Minister Grant Robertson welcomed the news, but gave no details about the status of the ongoing talks over cutting Rio Tinto’s transmission charges, which would come in return for a plan to remediate the site when the smelter closes.

“Today’s news is particularly welcome given the economic uncertainty created by the global covid-19 pandemic,” Robertson said in a separate statement.

“[But] understanding the extent of the environmental impact of the smelter and removal of toxic waste from this site remain a bottom line for the government,” he noted.

The facility, a joint venture between Rio Tinto and Japan’s Sumitomo Chemical, processes alumina from refineries in Queensland and Western Australia, exporting 90% of its output.