Choking China Backs Australia in Race for Cleaner Iron Ore

Updated on
  • China Railway working on mine, rail, port project in Australia
  • Steelmakers in China seen as market for low-emission ores

A rock sample containing the black seam of the higher-quality magnetite.

Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Chinese engineers who carved a railway through the Tibetan plateau and built the world’s longest sea-bridge across Hangzhou Bay have a new challenge: developing a $3.4 billion project on Australia’s remote Eyre Peninsula to meet increased demand for cleaner iron ore.

China Railway Group Ltd., the world’s second-largest infrastructure builder, is backing the mine, port and rail-road project that aims to supply high-quality, lower-emission ore to Chinese steel mills facing stricter environmental rules.

The project would be a major step toward South Australia’s goal of securing A$10 billion ($7.6 billion) of investments to fund a stable of new iron ore mines by 2021. China Railway’s partner Iron Road Ltd. aims to bring the 24 million ton-a year mine into production in late 2020 after tests showed its product can help customers meet the tougher standards.

“China’s demand for higher quality iron ore will increase, driven by stricter environmental protection regulations and improved profitability of steel mills,” said Yi Zhu, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in Hong Kong. A restructuring of China’s steel sector will also boost demand for premium quality imports, according to researcher CRU Group.

China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, plans to invest 2.5 trillion yuan ($360 billion) in renewable energy through 2020 to reduce greenhouse gases and is seeking to curb emissions by iron and steel producers. Mills are being compelled to upgrade their plants or cease operations if they fall short of standards, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

Iron Road’s iron ore will never solve all of the problems facing Chinese steel mills but “it will certainly help them,” Managing Director Andrew Stocks said by phone from Adelaide.  “We see an increase in productivity, a decrease in fuel use and a decrease in atmospheric emissions --  it’s not quite the Holy Grail, but there are three very positive attributes to improve the steel mills.”

Stocks is planning to meet with banks in Beijing and Shanghai this month and expects a final investment decision to be made this year. Under an interim 12-month accord signed last year, state-controlled China Railway anticipates taking as much as a 15 percent stake in the project, if approved, and will be the prime construction contractor, Iron Road said in a filing.

China Railway views the Eyre Peninsula as the preferred development location for a large scale, long life, high-grade iron concentrate development as opposed to competing locations in Western Australia, Eastern Canada and West Africa, according to an Iron Road filing. Calls to China Railway’s Beijing office weren’t answered and e-mails to an address on the company’s website received no reply.

In 2016, China shed more than 65 million tons of excess steel capacity and 290 million tons of inefficient coal mining capacity, Premier Li Keqiang said last month.

New Demand

South Australia’s government believes it has the right ore to meet the new demand -- about 14 billion tons of untapped magnetite, a higher-quality ore that contains more of the metal and fewer impurities than dominant market rival hematite. While it costs more to process magnetite, the product commands a premium from mills producing high-quality steel.

The state’s ambition to export 50 million tons of magnetite by 2030 is dwarfed by the predominantly hematite ore production in neighboring Western Australia, which accounts for more than half of global exports and is forecast to ship more than 860 million tons this year. Magnetite currently accounts for only between 15 to 20 percent of the seaborne export market, according to researcher AME Group.

Iron ore with 62 percent content in Qingdao rose 0.3 percent to $83.53 a dry ton on Wednesday, according to Metal Bulletin Ltd. The commodity touched a two-year high last month.

Hurdles from securing finance to displacing China’s homegrown magnetite supplies also present challenges to South Australia’s dream of reviving its iron ore sector. The state saw the nation’s first mining of the material in the late 19th Century and sent cargoes to markets including the U.S., the Netherlands and Japan.

The existing market for magnetite exports is well supplied and hasn’t shown major growth, though more higher quality material is likely to be required in the future, according to Fortescue Metals Group Ltd., the fourth-largest exporter. The West Australian company is yet to proceed with its Iron Bridge magnetite joint venture with Baosteel Group Corp. and Formosa Plastics Corp.

“South Australia has some difficulties,” Fortescue Chief Executive Officer Nev Power said in a phone interview. While the region holds good deposits, cargoes would probably take three days longer to reach China than from Western Australian ports, adding “a significant cost penalty for them,” he said.

‘Genuine Pressure’

As well as in China, demand is building for the higher-quality exports in the Middle East, where steel plants in Algeria to Oman also require the material, supporting the case for new mines, according to Gordon Toll, chairman of Magnetite Mines Ltd.

Magnetite Mines plans to begin output from South Australia’s Braemar district with a A$400 million, 2.5 million ton-a year mine within two years, said Toll, previously a chairman of Fortescue. The developer signed a sales agreement with Ningbo Iron & Steel Co. last month and is in talks with potential partners and investors in China, Japan, South Korea and the Middle East.

“There’s genuine pressure in China” for more environmentally friendly mills, Toll said by phone, forecasting the wider Braemar district could deliver exports of 100 million tons a year within a decade.

— With assistance by Martin Ritchie, and Steven Pu

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE