08 November 2008

First, we assume a smelter...

that might possibly lead to making stuff to make cans that we can assume a can-opener to use on.

Take a deep breath.

We are now in a world where we are not starting a project by assuming a can-opener.
And really we are not even assuming a can.


Now Memorial University economist Wade Locke is going beyond his prediction that the provincial government may post a surplus greater than predicted last spring to say he thinks there'll be a major economic development announcement for Labrador shortly.

Now we are fantasising about a plant to make to stuff to make the cans out of.

Speculation centres on an aluminum smelter and Locke's cheshire cat grin in an interview with CBC sure fueled the idea that some company - possibly Vale Inco - will be making the announcement related to the Lower Churchill.

Take another deep breath and let's look at what we know - as opposed to what is pure speculation.

1. The provincial budget will very likely be in deficit on a cash basis and if things financial keep going south, the $544 million surplus forecast on some other basis would also be tough - if not impossible - to achieve. Let's see how close Locke comes on that prediction before we accept the megaproject one.

2. The only Newfoundland and Labrador project - the ONLY project - in Vale's 2009 capex announcement in mid October was the Long Harbour smelter. There's no mention at all of an aluminum project or anything else vaguely like it for Canada.

3. To make it even more unlikely there's a real smelter project in the works from Vale, the company's capex commitment gives Vale's strategic view:
Vale’s strategy for the aluminum business is focused on the organic growth of upstream assets, through the development of its high quality bauxite reserves and the very efficient low-cost alumina operations.
As recently announced, we will build a new alumina refinery, Companhia de Alumina do Pará (CAP), and expand our Paragominas bauxite mine (Paragomias III), both located in the Brazilian state of Pará.

CAP will be responsible for the implementation and operation of an alumina refinery, located in Barcarena, close to the alumina refinery of our subsidiary Alunorte. CAP will be 80% owned by Vale, and 20% by Hydro Aluminium. [Emphasis added]

The initial production capacity of the refinery will be 1.86 Mtpy of alumina, through two lines of 930,000 tpy each. The new refinery has potential for future capacity expansions up to 7.4 Mtpy.
4. How do you spell massive subsidy? Aluminum smelters need huge amounts of cheap power. Lower Churchill power would not be cheap unless the provincial government agreed to sell the power over the long term at or below production costs.

Quebec uses its considerable generating capacity for power from plants that are already paid off to help subsidize aluminum enterprises in that province.

Critics point out that it would far more beneficial to export the cheap power for profit than subsidize aluminum plants.

It's not like the trend has been to build aluminum plants as far from possible as markets.

5. Even if by some chance a project is announced, it's construction would be tied to the Lower Churchill which itself remains a dodgy proposition. Lack of confirmed long-term sales contracts and the current economic downturn have put that project further in doubt.

6. Even if we are talking about an announcement, it would be for a project that, in the most optimistic scenario wouldn't be built and operating until closer to 2020 than not.

7. It's the November poll goosing season. Put that together with Locke's actual comment quoted by CBC and you have the sort of overblown hype coming from insiders that we've usually seen about the Lower Churchill project since 2003:
"There are significant projects being considered, energy intensive ones for the province that will make the earlier start of the project more viable and it will act more like a loan guarantee for the Lower Churchill that will allow them easier access to capital," he said.
Projects are being considered.

That doesn't mean they are confirmed.

The rest of the comment likely reflects the view inside the Premier's Office on what sorts of financial daisy-chains are necessary to keep the $9.0 billion project alive, at least in the minds of its proponents.

Of course, that doesn't mean that even the Lower Churchill is as likely as Locke claims.

After all, it's not like the Premier has refrained from hyping a dead dog before when it suited his purposes.