Mining Giant Hunts for Diamonds in the Canadian Forest

  • Second-largest miner seeking to advance joint venture project
  • Gems offer diversification for Rio’s portfolio: Morningstar

Rio Tinto Group’s pursuit of new diamond output to tap rising demand in Asia is focusing on an unheralded exploration project in the Canadian forest.

The world’s second-biggest miner on Tuesday added the Fort a la Corne joint venture, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) east of Prince Albert in Saskatchewan, to its published list of advanced projects after striking an agreement last month to take as much as a 60 percent stake.

The venture’s Star-Orion South project holds an estimated diamond resource of 55.4 million carats and has potential development costs of about C$2.5 billion ($2 billion), according to 2015 filings by developer, Saskatoon-based Shore Gold Inc.

“It’s a reasonable approach to be looking at commodities that are more consumer-facing than investment-facing -- the portfolio is still heavily skewed towards iron ore,” Mathew Hodge, an analyst at Morningstar Inc. in Sydney, said by phone. The ore accounted for about 41 percent of revenue in 2016, while diamonds generated about 2 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Global diamond jewelry demand hit $80 billion in 2016 on higher employment and wage growth, the top producer De Beers said in a June report. Rio has previously flagged India and China as key areas for increased demand with Chief Executive Officer Jean-Sebastien Jacques last year singling out diamonds as a priority and highlighting the company’s ambition to acquire or develop new mines.

Still, diamond exploration and mine building is a risky business. The industry has plowed more than $7 billion into exploration since 2000 with little to show for it. And of the more than 6,000 kimberlite diamond pipes tested in the last 140 years, only 60 have been worth mining, according to De Beers, which is a unit of Anglo American Plc.

To watch Rio’s CEO discuss plans for diamonds, click here

Rio “has a deep experience and expertise in the diamond exploration and mining business and looks forward to working on this growth opportunity for diamonds,” it said Tuesday in an email.

Rio, which forecasts diamond output of 19 million to 24 million carats this year, is scheduled to exhaust its two existing mines in Australia and Canada by 2024. It will carry out studies and programs on the project worth as much as about C$70.5 million over the next 7-1/2 years, Shore Gold said in a June 23 statement.

The Argyle mine in remote Western Australia is scheduled to close in 2021 and Rio’s Diavik operation, south of the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territories, will be depleted by 2024, the company said in December. The producer in February gifted the Bunder diamond deposit in India to the state government of Madhya Pradesh after rejecting the project’s investment case.

Adding an existing development project could accelerate plans to bring on new sources of production, according to Morningstar’s Hodge. “If you’ve made a decision that you like the outlook for diamonds, then it’s a faster way than starting from scratch,” he said.

Demand is rising in Asia and this year is “looking much stronger in China, so we’re very optimistic,” De Beers Forevermark CEO Stephen Lussier said in an interview last month.

While billionaire Dennis Washington on Monday agreed a $1.2 billion deal to acquire Dominion Diamond Corp., a rival bid from Rio can’t be ruled out, though management may not want to take on the acquisition so soon after a period of asset-shedding, BMO Capital Markets analyst Edward Sterck wrote in a research note. Dominion is Rio’s partner in the Diavik mine.

Adding production through exploration and project development is likely to win more support from Rio investors than any deal to acquire operations, according to Morningstar’s Hodge.

— With assistance by Thomas Biesheuvel

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