17 January 2007

Lab West mine deal: Did Danny screw the chances?

Consolidated Thompson announced on Tuesday that its exclusivity agreement with Wabush Mines had expired and no agreement had been reached on the sale of Wabush Mines.

CT is developing a mine in Quebec, close to the Labrador border and reportedly had been examining a possible consolidation of the two operations.

CT's announcement on Tuesday was a surprise to most people in Labrador West. The company said that, among other things, unexpected - and unspecified - liabilities had nixed the possibility of the deal. CT will now proceed with its development at Bloom Lake in Quebec.

In a teleconference Wednesday with investors and news media, board chairman Brian Tobin wouldn't be any more specific about liabilities issue or other reasons why CT had abandoned its plans for Wabush Mines.

Well here's a theory.

Unexpected liabilities = unforeseen costs.

Unforeseen costs? Maybe not unforeseen so much as "we couldn't cut a deal."

Consider that Wabush Mines and Iron Ore Company of Canada are co-owners, along with Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro of a little outfit called Twin Falls Hydroelectric Corporation. The Twin Falls generating station was built in the 1950s to meet the power needs of the two companys operations in Labrador West.

Hydro's shares used to belong to BRINCO and were acquired along with other BRINCO assets in the 1970s. Anyway, IOC and Wabush Mines agreed to mothball the Twin Falls generating plant to ensure that it wouldn't interfere with the adjacent Upper Churchill development.

Part of the deal, struck after long and difficult negotiations, was that IOC - and presumably Wabush - would have access to a block of power at low prices from the Upper Churchill as a trade for shutting down Twin Falls. After all, had the companies continued to operate their own generating plants, they'd have electricity available for the cost of maintaining the plant.

Enter Danny Williams.

In early October, the fiesty Premier warned Iron Ore Company of Canada - owners of the other mine in Labrador West - that they could expect to pay commercial rates for electricity once the current agreement ended. Williams likened the IOC/Wabush Mines power purchase deal to the Hydro Quebec giveaway on the Upper Churchill presumably knowing full-well that his comparison and the truth were two completely different things.

Presumably the same thing applied to Wabush Mines. You can imagine the talk: Forget the low cost power, boys, sez Danny. No more give aways. Maximum benefits to the province or take a hike.

And since Williams had flatly rejected a power deal in public, there was no way he would back down.

About a month later, Consolidated Thompson signed the exclusivity agreement with Wabush Mines. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch for the company to have figured that Danny's old buddy Brian Tobin could cut a deal on power, former Prem to current Prem. But after a few months of wrangling, in which the current Prem was likely a little more dyspeptic than usual, they just couldn't get Danny to a fair deal, namely ensuring the company could expect low cost power to flow just as it would have if they'd told BRINCO to shove off back in the 1960s.

By January, CT decides to head across the border, focus on Bloom Lake and talk to a much friendlier government in Quebec. Jean Charest and his Hydro Quebec team would certainly be willing to supply low-cost power from their own existing operations or from their new projects, like the Romaine.

Now this is a little bit of creative speculation, and there's no way either Brian or Danny will ever say just exactly what did happen. But the story is plausible. If Danny added all sorts of demands for costs on top of his electricity pricing, he might just have priced the whole deal right off the table.

And Danny is good at talking good deals right out the door with his Bela Oxmyx impersonation.

Just ask the local companies who had planned on Hebron work.

or Hibernia South work.

or White Rose expansion work.


That last one hasn't been killed yet.

Still, it does give you something to think about.


Update [19 Jan 07]:

Speculation is fun.

But with any large industrial project like a mine, there are always environmental liabilities and with mines in operation for any length of time there are big ones.

The Consolidated Thompson decision is most likely based on an overall assessment of the downstream implications of buying the existing Wabush Mines based on - as the company - said - the liabilities, both known and unknown or unexpected.

Discussions with the provincial government about electricity may never have taken place. We don't know and likely neither party would be able to discuss them if they did.

That said, CT will still have to look at issues about their Bloom Lake site such as how to get the ore to market once it's been mined. That may have some implications for Labrador West. Let's hope the provincial natural resources department doesn't let that one go sliding by until - as with Hibernia - they wait until a decision is made to go looking for information they should have sought long beforehand.