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Streamers turn to cobalt as Vale extends Voisey’s Bay nickel operations

by Greg Klein | June 11, 2018

It was a day of big moves for energy minerals as China bought into Ivanhoe, Vale lengthened Voisey’s and streaming companies went after the Labrador nickel mine’s cobalt.

On June 11 Robert Friedland announced CITIC Metal would pay $723 million for a 19.9% interest in Ivanhoe Mines TSX:IVN, surpassing the boss’ own 17% stake to make the Chinese state-owned company Ivanhoe’s largest single shareholder. Another $78 million might also materialize, should China’s Zijin Mining Group decide to exercise its anti-dilution rights to increase its current 9.9% piece of Ivanhoe.

Streamers turn to cobalt as Vale extends Voisey’s Bay nickel operations

At peak production, Voisey’s underground operations are expected to
ship about 45,000 tonnes of nickel concentrate annually to Vale’s
processing plant at Long Harbour, Newfoundland.

Proceeds would help develop the flagship Kamoa-Kakula copper-cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Platreef platinum-palladium-nickel-copper-gold mine in South Africa, as well as upgrade the DRC’s historic Kipushi zinc-copper-silver-germanium mine. Ivanhoe and Zijin each hold a 39.6% share in the Kamoa-Kakula joint venture.

Even bigger news came from St. John’s, where Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball joined Vale NYSE:VALE brass to herald the company’s decision to extend Voisey’s Bay operations by building an underground mine.

The announcement marked the 16th anniversary of Vale’s original decision to put Voisey (a Friedland company discovery) into production. Mining began in 2005, producing about $15 billion worth of nickel, copper and cobalt so far. Open pit operations were expected to end by 2022. Although a 2013 decision to go ahead with underground development was confirmed in 2015, the commitment seemed uncertain as nickel prices fell. That changed dramatically over the last 12 months.

With construction beginning this summer, nearly $2 billion in new investment should have underground operations running by April 2021, adding at least 15 years to Voisey’s life. The company estimates 16,000 person-years of employment during five years of construction, followed by 1,700 jobs at the underground mine and Long Harbour processing plant, with 2,135 person-years in indirect and induced employment annually.

Nickel’s 75% price improvement over the last year must have prodded Vale’s decision. But streaming companies were quick to go after Voisey’s cobalt. In separate deals Wheaton Precious Metals TSX:WPM and Cobalt 27 Capital TSXV:KBLT have agreed to buy a total of 75% of the mine’s cobalt beginning in 2021, paying US$390 million and US$300 million respectively. They foresee an average 2.6 million pounds of cobalt per year for the first 10 years, with a life-of-mine average of 2.4 million pounds annually.

Both companies attribute cobalt’s attraction to clean energy demand and a decided lack of DRC-style jurisdictional risk. But Vale also emphasizes nickel’s promise as a battery metal. Last month spokesperson Robert Morris told Metal Bulletin that nickel demand for EVs could rise 10-fold by 2025, reaching 350,000 to 500,000 tonnes.

Total nickel demand currently sits at slightly more than two million tonnes, Morris said. New supply would call for price increases well above the record levels set this year, he added.

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