Rio's African iron ore venture slides towards backburner

First signs that Rio Tinto's Simandou iron ore project was drifting towards the backburner came long before reports out of Africa.

First signs that Rio Tinto's Simandou iron ore project was drifting towards the backburner came long before reports out of Africa.

Investment bankers have been amused by recent company briefings that have listed the once high-profile project below Dampier Salt in the order of discussion.

Dampier Salt is the little toe on the Rio Tinto giant - an industrial salt-exporting business in Western Australia that raised just $23 million in earnings before interest and tax at the most recent set of results.

Simandou was never expected to keep that sort of company on Rio's balance sheet, with the ambitious project previously seen as one of Rio's most high-risk, high-reward projects in the developing world.

Spruiked as Africa's biggest private infrastructure project, Simandou was planned as an iron ore joint venture with the World Bank's International Finance Corporation and a Chinese state-owned enterprise that would ship about as much iron ore each year as Fortescue Metals Group does in the Pilbara today.

But predictably, doing business in Guinea has proved difficult.

The local government has pushed for larger stakes in the project over the years, and in 2011 it forced Rio into a controversial $US700 million payment to retain the project.

Reports about a "freeze" on the project and Rio cutting staff numbers in Guinea are linked to ongoing delays in approving the investment framework: a long overdue agreement that sets out how much funding each party is expected to secure for a project tipped to cost more than $US10 billion.

Rio has long expected the Guinean government to secure financing to support a 51 per cent stake in the port and rail costs, but has found progress slow.

A similar impasse has frozen development of a neighbouring iron ore project being run by Brazilian miner Vale. Rio's man in charge of Simandou, Alan Davies, said in January that Rio couldn't push ahead with further work until it was clear who was paying for what.

Similar sentiments came through in Rio's official response to the Reuters report, which confirmed that discussions with the government had been held in recent days.

"The Simandou project is definitely not frozen and Rio Tinto continues to progress the project and is committed to its development. The current priority is finalising the investment framework and for the government of Guinea to secure its financing," a company spokesman said.

Rio's new chief executive, Sam Walsh, has said he is committed to keeping the Simandou project on Rio's books and taking it through to development, despite a pressing need to prune assets and cut costs.

Perhaps that commitment is more rooted in expectations that, under a more moderate future for iron ore prices, it will be hard to find buyers for a massive green-field iron ore project in an unpredictable jurisdiction.

Rio shares were down more than 1 per cent on Tuesday to $62.05, outpacing losses of rival BHP Billiton, which was steady.

But is any of that linked to the Simandou struggle? Probably not. Concerns over the direction of Rio's other joint venture with the World Bank in an unpredictable developing nation - Mongolia's Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine - is more likely to be the source of Tuesday's share price declines.

Revelations over the past 24 hours that the United States did not support a decision by the World Bank's International Finance Corporation to help fund Oyu Tolgoi's development do not threaten the actual funding.

That was finalised on February 28 when the IFC approved a loan of up to $US400 million and committed to help with a further $US1 billion syndicated loan.

But the US stance is a political blow to Rio in a year when politics will reign in Mongolia.

A presidential election is due within three months, and the size of Mongolia's stake in Oyu Tolgoi has been the biggest political issue in the country for several years now.

Rio and the Mongolian government are currently at odds over the investment agreement that governs the project, and with first commercial production from the mine due in June, any delays will have far more serious ramifications than the ongoing struggles with Simandou.

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