Mining for the green economy is still dirty work

In late May, Nornickel also reported a fuel spill near Norilsk, in north-central Russia. (Image courtesy of Nornickel).

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, Clara Ferreira Marques, a columnist for Bloomberg)

The world’s top producer of refined nickel and palladium is dealing with the aftermath of a devastating Arctic fuel leak that resulted in a record $2 billion levy. It’s among the biggest emitters of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide. Yet Russian mining giant MMC Norilsk Nickel PJSC spent much of its time with investors this week talking up its green efforts and climate goals. To attain them, it plans to spend $5.5 billion-plus, as part of a broader $27 billion, 10-year investment blueprint.

That’s a strikingly modest push for a company that throws up as much cash, and pollutes as badly, as Nornickel does. Still, it’s talk and organizational reshuffling that send an encouraging signal — providing upcoming discussions between the company’s largest owners also reconsider a generous dividend policy tofree up more money for investment in cleaner operations. If that happens, it will augur well for progress even in what have long been the least environmentally friendly corners of corporate Russia, despite the government’s less-than-impressive track record

There is little pressure on the Kremlin to take a more proactive stance in the near-term

Nornickel has a dismal ecological history. The polar city that carries its namehas ranked among the country’s most polluted in large part thanks to its local industrial titan. In 2016, a spill turned a local river blood red. The miner has since been more active when it comes to environmental, social and governance issues, perhaps in part because many of the metals it produces — high-grade nickel, used in batteries; copper, essential for green energy systems; or palladium, for pollution-control devices for cars and trucks — have a starring role in a zero-carbon economy. But progress has been slow.

Then came 2020. In a grim few months, Nornickel had three significant accidents: the May diesel leak, an incident that tipped industrial water into the tundra in June, and, in July, an aviation-fuel spill.

Much of what was announced on Tuesday, ranging from an air-quality improvement plan to better water treatment facilities, is overdue and not quite as generous as it seems. Even if much of the $5.5 billion is spent in the first years of the plan, as Nornickel curbs sulfur-dioxide emissions, it’s not much for a company that churned out $2.7 billion in free cash flow in the first half and plans to expand production.

There is evidence of action, though. Nornickel is cracking down on laggard managers and starting to tie pay to green targets. That suggests it’s listening to concerns from institutional investors facing calls to ditch big polluters from their portfolios. Buyers such as electric-car maker Tesla Inc. are promising big rewards for nickel mined in an environmentally friendly way.

There’s helpful self-interest too. For example, better monitoring of the permafrost on which key polar infrastructure is built should allow better protection in a region warming at twice the global rate. 

As a country, Russia is lagging behind many of its peers on environmental matters. The May spill, one of the country’s worst, earned Nornickel’s billionaire boss Vladimir Potanin a public dressing down from President Vladimir Putin. Yet even in a year marked by record Arctic heat and fires, it’s hard to say even climate concerns have made it to the top of the Kremlin’s priorities. Moscow published a carbon development plan in March, the first to take a view to 2050. It didn’t map out a shift away from fossil fuels.

At a conference with European officials this week, Putin’s advisor and special envoy on climate issues criticized restrictions on carbon-intensive commodities, which could hurt Russia, and fell back on arguments that the country has already contributed to greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, glossing over the fact the drop is due to the collapse of the Soviet industrial complex.

There is little pressure on the Kremlin to take a more proactive stance in the near-term. The same is not true for Nornickel.

The company could yet impress in a laggard mining sector, and woo greener-minded investors who have long been put off. But it needs to convince its second-largest shareholder, aluminum giant United Co. Rusal, to reassess its dividend policy, one of the most generous in the industry, and then put the cash to work. Their shareholder deal expires on Jan. 1, 2023.

CEO Potanin, also Norilsk’s largest investor, has said the structure is a relic of the past. In a changing economy, even yield-hungry fund managers will have to concur.

(By Clara Ferreira Marques)


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