02 May 2009

Smelter talk more like smegma talk

Last October a federal briefing note prepared for incoming natural resources minister Lisa Raitt listed an aluminum smelter in Labrador as one of 14 projects expected to be announced within six months.

Unfortunately for the people writing the briefing notes, the proponents – Rio Tinto Alcan – were busily chopping production globally in response to the economic meltdown.

The briefing note story is in the Saturday Telegram along with some choice recent history of the smelter story.  It isn’t on line.

As the Telly notes, the Premier traveled to Brazil in late 2007 to pitch the smelter idea to vale Inco. 

A year later the government’s favourite economist was touting the idea of an imminent announcement of what – as we told you at the time – was supposed to be an aluminum smelter. 

The project would, as the Telly quotes Wade Locke, “make the earlier start of the project [Lower Churchill] more viable and …act more like a loan guarantee for the Lower Churchill that will allow them easier access to capital.”

Nice thought, that, except that reality was intruding on the fantasy even as the words were being uttered or the briefing notes being drafted. Major aluminum producers were busily shedding capacity through the fall of 2008 and early winter of 2009 as demand plummeted.

The problem for Australian-based Rio Tinto was a bit larger.  The miner completed its purchase of Alcan in late 2008 and took on responsibility for the company’s $40 billion net debt problem, as a result.

Plans to shed some assets melted in mid October. Since then the company has announced plans to chop 14,000 jobs globally – 12.5% of its workforce – and has slowed production by as much as 22% in some aspects of aluminum production. In February, Rio Tinto announced a deal with Chi Nalco, a state-owned enterprise, to allow the Chinese to farm into several existing Rio ventures, including bauxite and aluminum projects in the Pacific.

The company’s capex plan for 2009-2010 reduces expenditures in 2009 by 50% and sets the level for 2010 at sustainment.  in other words, for the next two years the company is not anticipating any significant capital expenditure.  On top of that, the company has already reduced production  especially in some its high-cost operations.

The Chinese deal suggests not only that the company is welcoming some fresh cash into the system but also is gearing to take advantage of growth in the Chinese market using facilities that are closer to the market than Labrador. 

For those who don’t know, Labrador is pretty much as far from China as one can get.  All the raw materials for a smelter would have to be imported and the power would have to be sold at incredibly low prices – well below current market rates in Labrador – in order to offset the production and shipping costs. That’s almost identical in concept to the Smallwood-era phosphorous plant at Long Harbour.  The project was only viable because of its low energy costs (initially the same rate as sales to Hydro Quebec from Churchill Falls) and its proximity to its major market in the United Kingdom.

Similar aluminum projects in Iceland involved selling power at half the rate for other commercial users.

The Quebec government provides massive subsidies to its aluminum industry but that hasn’t stopped recent shutdowns and layoffs.

The idea of establishing an aluminum smelter in Labrador dates back to the 1950s.